Question: "What is the book of Tobit?"
Answer: Tobit is part of what is considered the Apocrypha / Deuterocanonical scripture and appears in the Old Testament of Catholic Bibles. Except for some Episcopal or Lutheran Bibles, Tobit and other books of the Apocrypha do not appear in Protestant Bibles. Apocrypha means “hidden,” and Deuterocanonical means “second-listed.” Books of the Apocrypha were generally written in the roughly 400 years between the composition of the books in the Old and New Testaments, the so-called intertestamental period. Tobit is one of 12-15 books generally recognized as comprising the Apocrypha.
The Book of Tobit, also referred to as Tobias, believed to have been written early in the second century B.C., recounts the story of a man named Tobit and his family exiled to living in Nineveh shortly after the fall of the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 722 B.C. Tobit and his family strive to love and honor God and act as righteous followers of the Law. The Book of Tobit is regarded as a book of history, and its literary form is regarded by some as that of a religious novel. However, the teaching of the book is not driven by or relevant to historical events. Rather, it instructs about piety, honoring one’s parents, giving alms to the poor, intercessory prayer, marriage, and following the Law.
The story of Tobit revolves around a righteous, law-abiding Jew who did not abandon traditional Jewish beliefs and practices while other Jews living in exile with him were worshipping idols and failing to follow God’s laws. Tobit did many good deeds, including burying Jews according to ritual at some risk to himself and giving alms to the poor. His family was wealthy. However, one hot night after burying a body, Tobit slept outside, and sparrow droppings fell into his eyes and blinded him. He despaired and asked God that he may die. On that same day in Media, Sarah, one of Tobit’s kinsman, prayed to God to take her life also because she was constantly ridiculed for marrying seven times, and each time the demon Asmodeus killed her husband before the marriage could be consummated.
With Tobit expecting to die soon, he sent his only son, Tobiah, to Media to return a large sum of money on deposit with a relative. During this trip, Tobiah was unknowingly accompanied by the angel Raphael (who appears only in the Apocrypha, not the Bible). Tobiah was attacked by a large fish, which Raphael tells him to kill and extract its gall bladder, liver, and heart, because they “can be used as medicines.” Upon arriving in Media, Tobiah marries Sarah at Raphael’s insistence and uses the fish heart and liver to dispose of the demon and protect the marriage bed. When Tobiah returns home, he applies the gall and restores his father’s sight.
This book was written in Aramaic, a rather common international language used by Jews and many others living during the intertestamental period. For centuries the original text was lost, and the Greek translation served as the primary source for this book. However, in Cave IV at Qumran (Dead Sea Scrolls discovery), fragments of Tobit were found written in Aramaic and Hebrew, and conform closely to the Greek recension used for current translations.
Several verses in Tobit repeat Old Testament Scripture, such as First and Second Kings, Deuteronomy, Leviticus, and many others. Tobit also hints at the birth of Christ described in the New Testament Gospels and the end times in apostle John’s Book of Revelation.
Many have highlighted a few historical and theological errors in Tobit. First, Tobit 1:15 incorrectly notes that Sennacherib was Shalmaneser’s son, rather than the son of Sargon II. Also, Tobit seems to imply that he was alive during the reign of Jeroboam I (about 930 B.C.), but at his death he was reported to be 117 years old. Theologically, Tobit asserts that almsgiving alone “will save you from death,” not, as Paul states in Galatians 2:15, that man is justified (saved) “by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified.” And Jesus, in John 3:16, says that “whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Faith alone, therefore, not works or observing the Law, provides salvation.