The Setting of Tobit

Chapter 1

v. 1-2

This book tells the story of Tobit son of Tobiel son of Hananiel son of Aduel son of Gabael son of Raphael of the descendants of Asiel, of the tribe of Naphtali, who in the days of King Shalmaneser of the Assyrians was taken into captivity from Thisbe, which is to the south of Kedesh Naphtali in Upper Galilee, above Asher toward the west, and north of Phogor.

Verses one and two in the first chapter of Tobit provide the background information we need as readers. These lines establish the protagonist’s (Tobit) genealogy as well as his location and the time in which he lived.

These verses are written in the third person unlike the following part of the story, which is a first-person account. These two verses are written as if an author other than Tobit penned them in order to provide the historical material for the first-hand account that follows. This type of information is usually only included if someone is writing later, either adding to the account or providing background information for his or her own narrative. The story will only be told in first-person from chapter 1 and verse 3 through chapter 3 and verse 1, creating an inconsistent perspective throughout the narrative.

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It cannot be known that Tobit’s ancestry, as presented in this account, is historically accurate. Asiel, who is called a son of Naphtali, is not mentioned in the Hebrew Bible. The first place we see Asiel’s name mentioned is in the Septuagint (Numbers 26:48), which differs from the Hebrew text. This is, perhaps, one of the reasons some scholars believe Tobit to have been written in Egypt. In the 3rd Century B.C, the Hebrew Bible began to be translated into Greek after the conquest of Alexander the Great in Egypt. This is also why the account cannot have been written before 390 B.C.

King Shalmanesser (Shalmanesser V, 2 Kings 17) was the son of Tiglath-pilesser III (2 Kings 15:29). According to 2 Kings, it was Tiglath-pilesser who captured the tribe of Naphtali and carried her people into Assyria. Shalmanesser later laid siege to Samaria. The details listed in Tobit differ from those of 2 Kings, but there does not seem to be a necessary contradiction- simply a very unlikely event.

Tobit’s story is set following the year 722 B.C. during the exile. This means that Tobit could not have written this account. In fact, at least these first two verses were penned generations after the setting of this story. Considering the use of the Septuigint’s Asiel and the lack of early historical information about Tobit’s other ancestors, readers can be confident that the author(s) most likely could not have known whether Tobit was a real person. From these first two verses, we can place Tobit in the historical fiction category. This does not make the book any less important for our studies, especially as we seek to understand the background context for the New Testament. Since the book is not a true historical account, it simply does not meet the criterion for canonicity- even if it could have been rightly considered.

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