The Example of Tobit

by redguthrie

The Old Testament Book of Tobit is an often overlooked part of Christian scriptures. In part, the neglect of Tobit can be explained by the Protestant rejection of significant sections of the Christian Old Testament, which included Tobit, despite the fact that Tobit and these other books were widely accepted as holy scripture by the early Church and are still part of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox scriptures. While one may be a good Christian without ever having read Tobit, if we ignore Tobit, we lose a wonderful example of how to live a righteous life in the eyes of God, a life we Christians would do well to emulate.

Tobit takes place during the Assyrian exile, a time of hardship and persecution for the Israelites who had been taken from their homeland. The Israelites were forced to live among pagans, and according to Tobit, many chose to live and worship as the pagans did, but Tobit remained true to God and did not neglect his duty to care for others (Tobit 1:10-11). In Tobit 1:16-17 it is written:

In the days of Shalmaneser, I did much almsgiving to my brothers. I would give my bread to the hungry and my clothing to the naked. If I saw anyone of my people dead, cast outside the wall of Nineveh, I would bury him.

Tobit did not allow his hardships to harden is heart. In fact, he was so compassionate that he was willing to make himself ritually unclean to bury his kinsmen who had been executed by the Assyrians and left to rot and be devoured by animals outside the walls of Nineveh. More than risking ritual uncleanliness, Tobit was breaking the law by burying executed Israelites and eventually had to flee for his own life while his possessions were confiscated (Tobit 1:18-20).

Tobit eventually returned to his home when the threat of his execution had been lifted. His family prepared a large feast in celebration, and when Tobit saw how much good food there was, he sent his son into town to find a poor person to share in their bounty (Tobit 2:1-2). Even after having hid for weeks in a cave, Tobit’s heart never turned from God or his neighbors. When he saw his own abundance he knew it could supply the need of another (cf. 2 Corinthians 8:14). But before he could find a fellow Israelite in need, Tobit’s son ran back to the house to tell his father that a man laid murdered in the street (Tobit 2:3). Without even touching his food, Tobit removed the body from the market place and buried it that night, even as his neighbors warned that the Assyrians might again seek to execute him for such an act (Tobit 2:4-8). Tobit is willing to sacrifice his life to do what is right even for those who, because they are dead, cannot possibly thank him or repay his selflessness.

Later, Tobit admonishes his son with this advice:

My son, remember the Lord our God all your days and do not desire to sin or to disobey His commandments. Do righteousness all the days of your life, and do not walk in the ways of wrongdoing. For if you walk in the truth, you will be successful in your works. Do almsgiving, do not let your eye be envious (cf. 2 Corinthians 9:6-9). Do not turn your face away from any poor man, so the face of God will not be turned away from you (cf. Matthew 25:41-46). Do almsgiving based on the quantity of your possessions. If you possess only a few, do not be afraid to give according to the little you have. You are storing up a good treasure for yourself in the day of necessity (cf. Matthew 6:19-21). For almsgiving delivers us from death and prevents us from entering into the darkness. Indeed almsgiving is a good gift for all who do it before the Most High (cf. Hebrews 13:16).

Do not keep overnight the wages of any man who works for you, bu pay him immediately (cf. Deuteronomy 24:15). If you serve God, He will pay you. Give heed to yourself, my son, in all your works, and be disciplined in all your conduct. What you yourself hate, do not do to anyone (cf. Mark 12:31)…From your bread, give to him who is hungry and from your clothing, give to the naked (cf. Luke 3:11, 1 John 3:17-18, and James 2:15-17). If you have more than you need, do almsgiving, and do not let your eye envy the almsgiving when you do it.

(Tobit 4:5-11,14-15a,16)

We can see in the example of Tobit’s actions and his advice to his son a radical faith and righteousness. Tobit lived out his love for his neighbor even when he risked losing his life. In times of bounty and hardship alike he kept his heart focused on God and sought always to help those around him. He preached to his son the radical charity and almsgiving that is so characteristic of the New Testament. If Tobit could be so righteous even without the example of the Incarnate Christ, shouldn’t we strive to be even more so?