The Book of Tobit And The Saving Grace Of Women

History 015A: Literary and Historical Study of the Old Testament
Profs. Buck & Luotto
Copyright © 1993 B. A. Collie Collier

In the article "Tobit", by Amy-Jill Levine, the condition and treatment of the women in the story is shown as a cautionary example of how good women are supposed to act, and how they are circumscribed by their culture. For example, the author uses Sarah to show that patriarchy was rampant in the religion of the Diasporic Jews. Anna, Tobit's wife, is used as an example of a household in disharmony. Edna is used to show how women are only used for procreation. Yet there is another way of looking at this story, and another possible interpretation. The Book of Tobit can be seen as a shining example of the saving grace of woman, God's last and greatest creation. To truly understand this point of view, one must use the 'savior' translation of the Hebrew in Genesis 2:18: "I shall make him [man] a savior [or deliverer]", where God is speaking of the creation of women.

I do not think this gift is something women consciously control; the feeling one gets is that when one's wife is good and happy, all is well in the family. This would explain, for example, Proverbs 31:10-31. What then is this gift; what exactly will these women deliver, or save, the men from? The conclusion I have come to is that women save men from being forgotten, and deliver them from obscurity. Children insure a lasting family name, and care in one's old age, as well as a reason to strive in life. This would be exemplified by the women's names. As Ms. Levine points out, "Anna's name evokes the biblical Hannah...", and "Sarah shares her name with Abraham's barren wife... ". The author goes on to show these connections as disparaging things, yet they can also be seen as symbols of hope. Who could have imagined the barren women so invoked could ever bear children? And yet, according to legend, they did. So too will the Sarah and Anna of the Book of Tobit be vindicated.

Anna is further used by the author as an example of the household in disharmony. Yet if one assumes women are the saviors of men, then is it not equally likely that Tobit is the cause of this marital disharmony? God is testing him with blindness, and his wife goes out and supports him. She is a good wife; she sticks to women's work, and does not dishonor her husband's family. And how does Tobit repay her? In vs. 11-13 he accuses her of theft! Subsequent to this, it is almost as if he recognizes the depths to which he has fallen. It is at this point that he beseeches the Lord for death (Tobit 3:6).

In vs. 5:19, if anyone, it is Anna who is being faithful to the tenets of Judaism, "Let us be content to live the life appointed for us by the Lord." Could it not be significant that the kind and thoughtful words spoken by Tobit to Anna (Tobit 5:20-21) are both the reason she stops weeping in 5:22, and cause her deliverance to him, unconscious or otherwise, to be re-invoked? Tobit's words thus become both the cause and the foreshadowing of good things to come. And again, in 10:1-7, it is Tobit's anxieties which alarm her; again, his kind and affectionate words seem to keep this role of savior still active in his wife.

Edna too receives short shrift at the pen of Ms. Levine. It is pointed out that "...the names of the women... are all connected with procreation... Edna's name derives from a Hebrew term meaning '(sexual) pleasure,' ...used... when Sarah laughs to herself saying, 'after I have grown old, and my husband is old, am I still to have pleasure?' (Genesis 18:12)." Yet again, this can be looked at in a different light. As it turned out, Sarah did have pleasure. It is a kind and thoughtful god indeed who provides such deliverance to his creations. To be saved from obscurity and misery is a powerful gift indeed for a woman to give a man. Why interpret this as a bad thing? Of course the men's names are concerned with God -- they do not have the special relationship that women seem to share with both God and Man. Why not name the women after that great gift? Such a special relationship deserves constant remembrance, just as the constant aspiration of the men to be closer to God is reflected in their names.

Ms. Levine portrays Sarah as "...passive, dependent and silent, ...the perfect wife." Without a man she is barren; she is ignorant of her true condition; the angel Raphael never speaks to her. While it is true Sarah seems to be the perfect wife, I believe it is for a different reason than that given by Ms. Levine. Yes, she is initially barren. Yet it has already been shown that broaching the boundary between the human and the supernatural is not healthy for mankind (Tobit 3:8, Genesis 6). It would seem a kindness from God to make her barren. Were she not, the demon Asmodeus and she might procreate, and she would bear the children of a demon, a thing of which God does not seem to approve. Again, it is the demon which could plausibly be to blame for her ignorance. Why tell the girl about any possible relatives to marry? The demon would just kill them all. Better to hope someone turns up with a cure.

It is true Sarah is very quiet, yet she is eloquent enough when speaking to God. Could not her words be interpreted as sincerity? Silence is not only passivity. Sometimes it is the mark of the wise. Also, it is interesting that the angel Raphael waits to bind Asmodeus until it is away from the woman, Sarah (Tobit 8:3). Could it be that the "deliverance" of women is so strong that it can protect even a demon, and thwart even an angel of God? In this light, it would make sense that Tobias wishes to pray and confirm his marriage as based on "sincerity" and "singleness of heart"; he is a good son and husband, and by loving only his wife, he will show himself deserving of her deliverance. Lust is the domain of the demon, not of Tobias.

Lastly the angel Raphael does not speak or deal with women. Then again, if women are the saviors of man, why should he? It is not the women in the Book of Tobit who seem to need to be tested, but rather the men. It is the men who need guidance, and the angel is there to guide them.

Finally, there is Ms. Levine's assertion that "...the woman's role... is to be in the house; there she cares for her husband and comforts her children. Her public or religious duties emerge only when men are absent or disabled. When Tobit was orphaned, his grandmother Deborah assumed responsibility for his religious training; when he is blinded, Anna enters the work force." I fail to see how this diminishes women. True, it is not equality, a concept our culture seems to feel is imperative for a culture to be considered healthy by us. Yet it fails to take egalitarianism into account: if there are things one gender does better, let them do those things. I have yet to meet the man who can bear a child. Being in command of the house and home and children is not a trap for the women in the story. They are proud examples of egalitarianism at work: they do both that which no man can do, and what needs to be done, and they do it devoutly and well. They bear children, run the home, and when the men fall down in their responsibilities, the women do those too!

In conclusion, I see the Book of Tobit, as Ms. Levine writes, as a cautionary tale and example of how the Diasporic Jews should live the devout life. However, I strongly disagree with her conclusions concerning the role of women in this tale. Even if it is subconscious on the part of the storyteller, the incredible meaningfulness of women to the culture is there in the story. I believe the Book of Tobit can be interpreted to show a beautiful example of how significant and valued they were to the culture of the time.


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    Last Updated: Mon Aug 30 1999