Tobit’s monologue in 1:3-3:1, reveals much about what 3rd Century B.C. Jews valued. These values would remain into and through the 1st Century A.D, during Jesus’ physical ministry on this earth. During His ministry, Jesus would address many of the things that became popular in the religious teaching of the Jews. Even though the Apocrypha, particularly Tobit, was not considered by the Jews to be “Scripture” or “Sacred Writing” (the term canon did not yet exist), the moral and wisdom teaching present within portions of the Apocrypha, including portions of Tobit, were influential along with the oral teaching that would eventually be written down and referred to as the Talmud. So, even though they were not canon, these writings and some oral traditions bore some moral and teaching authority in the Jewish community.
In fact, these works help us to see the types of values Jewish teachers of the Law had in the 1st Century A.D. We can see what sort of worldview the scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees had and what sort of worldview Jesus and the Apostles were engaging and interacting with. Without these apocryphal works, we don’t have an accurate picture of 1st Century Jewish cultural values.
In verses 3-9, we begin to see what some of those values are as the protagonist, Tobit, begins to define what he believes it means to walk in the ways of truth and righteousness:
- He prized performing acts of charity for his own people (v. 3),
- keeping the festivals according to the Law (v. 6),
- tithing to the Temple according to the Law (v. 6-7), and
- giving to those in need (v. 7-8).
For Tobit, we see that walking in the ways of truth and righteousness depends upon his good acts and his keeping of the Law. Even when the tribe of Naphtali committed idolatry under Jeroboam (1 Kings 12:28-29, 928 B.C.), only Tobit kept the festivals (This makes Tobit more than 200 years old by the time of the exile). This morality is what the Pharisees and scribes would teach at the dawn of the Common Era. As He would interact with this sort of works-based teaching, Jesus would teach, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 6:1). In fact, Jesus would teach that this works-based religion, which Tobit describes as walking in the ways of truth and righteousness, is insufficient and that those who practice such religion are like a man who builds his house upon the sand (Matthew 5:1-7:29, see the notes in the Bible Study Index on this site).
The values we see in Tobit, the values that the scribes and Pharisees would adopt, are not the values that Jesus has and are not the values God reveals Himself to have in the Old Testament. Job was an upright man, yet insufficient. Before the exile, the time in which Tobit’s story is set, the prophet Isaiah spoke the word of the Lord,
“‘What are your multiplied sacrifices to Me?’ Says the Lord. ‘I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams And the fat of fed cattle; And I take no pleasure in the blood of bulls, lambs or goats… Bring your worthless offerings no longer, Incense is an abomination to Me. New moon and sabbath, the calling of assemblies- I cannot endure iniquity and the solemn assembly. I hate your new moon festivals and your appointed feasts, They have become a burden to Me; I am weary of bearing them. So when you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you; Yes, even though you multiply prayers, I will not listen. Your hands are covered with blood’” (Isaiah 1:11, 13-15).
The protagonist, Tobit, who would have been a recipient of Isaiah’s prophecy, was disobeying God and was convinced that he was walking in the ways of truth and righteousness. According to God, God hated what Tobit was doing. This is exactly what happens when we think our standing before God is good because of what we do or don’t. Yet, this is the value people had in the 3rd Century B.C, when Tobit was written, and through the time of Jesus’ preaching ministry. In fact, this is the main thing Jesus will correct throughout His preaching ministry in the 1st Century A.D.