The Apocrypha in Lent – 17 February

If this is your first visit, please see my introduction to these Lenten readings.

17 February. Tobit chapters 12-14

After the healing of Sarah and Tobit we hear little more of their lives other than Tobit’s death and his instruction to the next generation to move to Media (where Sarah came from) to escape a coming persecution.  These chapters, including a long hymn of praise attributed to Tobit, form the conclusion of the story which lay on heavily a series of “morals” or proverbs such as one often finds in tales of this sort along with the “happily ever after” ending  – giving alms is better than hoarding riches; secrets are to be kept among people but God’s good deeds are to be proclaimed; and also (one which is not really borne out in the main storyline) Jerusalem is the holy city and will be rebuilt after the exile is ended.

There is one other curiosity about this story.  On both the outward journey from Nineveh to Ecbatana, and their return, Tobias and Raphael were accompanied by a dog – an animal rarely mentioned in the Bible at all, given their long history of domestication.  But it is not mentioned elsewhere in the story, so what is the point of including it?  However, reading the footnotes of the New Revised Standard Version, we find that (on the second occasion the dog is mentioned) one ancient text instead has “and the LORD went along behind them”.  That makes much more sense – as well as the angel, God himself was with them.

The Apocrypha in Lent – 16 February

If this is your first visit, please see my introduction to these Lenten readings.

16 February. Tobit chapters 8-11

This story has few unexpected twists.  When it comes to the wedding night, the burning of fish offal works just as the angel predicted and the demon flees to Egypt (how do they know that?).  Likewise, as soon as Tobias meets his father again, the fish gall does its work and heals his blindness (interestingly, Asian traditional medicine claims improved sight as one of the health benefits of consuming fish gall bladder, although it is not recommended by Western doctors as it can have severe side effects on the kidneys).

More interesting is the prayer that Tobias and Sarah offer before consummating their marriage.  Together they offer their marriage to God, asking him to bring them to old age together, and Tobias promises to take his wife not out of lust but to serve her.  That is a sound foundation for marriage – for a couple to serve each other and God, pray for each other regularly, and expect the marriage to continue the whole of their lives.  Perhaps the death of her previous seven suitors was because they approached her with the wrong attitude.

The attitude to in-laws in this story is very positive too.  We are left in no doubt that each set of parents regards the other with honour, and Sarah’s parents regard Tobias as a new son just as much as his parents regard her as a new daughter.  When a happy marriage is formed, both families gain from the new bonding.  Truly a “win-win situation”.   No doubt it helped in this instance that they were all Jews from the same tribe, but even when there is a marriage between people of different racial or cultural backgrounds, it can be an opportunity for each family to learn something of the other’s culture.  It is sad to see, as happened with one of my wife’s relatives, someone being cut off by their parent because their chosen partner was from a different ethnic group.

The Apocrypha in Lent – 15 February

If this is your first visit, please see my introduction to these Lenten readings.

15 February. Tobit chapters 5-7

If yesterday’s opening chapters suggested that this is a work of fiction, today’s leaves us in no doubt.  In real life people do not meet angels posing as their distant relatives, nor have their feet swallowed by a fish (cue the music to “Jaws”), nor find that the offal of the same fish is a cure for blindness and demon-possession.    The storyline may be a bit crude compared with today’s novels, but don’t forget this was written over 2000 years ago – it certainly compares well with the likes of the tales of Andersson or Grimm!

What seems equally strange to our Western culture is the idea that a marriage might not only be arranged between a boy and girl from the same extended family, but put into practice immediately.  No period of betrothal, no plans for a family wedding, not even a dowry: Tobias and Sarah are introduced, have a marriage contract drawn up, a wedding feast in her father’s house, and are sent off to consummate the marriage, all in one evening.  Again, this is probably exaggerated for literary effect rather than representing the actual culture of the time.

If there is a lesson to be learnt from this, perhaps it is in the way that Tobias is told to accept Sarah not only as a wife but as a sister – “From now you are her brother and she is your sister. She is given to you from today for ever” (7:11).  In obvious ways, the relationship a man has with his wife must be very different from that with his sister, but the point being made is that the relationship forged in marriage is as unbreakable as that between siblings. Even if a marriage is not a happy one, there are still responsibilities that should not be denied, any more than the family ties between brother and sister.  More positively, at its best the relationship between brother and sister can be easy-going, affectionate and mutually supportive, and so should a good marriage be.


The Apocrypha in Lent – 14 February

Last year I set up this blog to share my thoughts as I read through the Bible in a year.  That is, the regular “Protestant” bible of Old and New Testaments.

But there are other sacred books  from the time of Jesus or a few centuries before, that are regarded by some (but not all) Christians – particularly  Roman Catholics – as part of the Bible.   So for completeness I am covering those in the period of Lent 2018.   The version of the Bible I am using is the Jerusalem Bible “Popular edition”.

Any views expressed here are my own.  If my thoughts are helpful, let me know.  If you disagree, you’re welcome to add polite comments – I’m no fundamentalist. But this isn’t a forum for theological argument, there are plenty of others out there if that’s what you want.

From time to time I may also post other articles not related to the Bible reading, but as the Bible is actually all about real life, that seems appropriate.

I take copyright seriously, so if you want to quote me extensively, please either credit me or link back to the original blog post.


Stephen Craven

14 February. Tobit chapters 1-4
The book of Tobit, like some others in the Old Testament that tell of one person’s miraculous life (e.g. Job, Esther and Jonah) is generally regarded as edifying fiction, rather than a historical account. We need not be worried about this – Jesus used stories about fictional people to make important points about God and the relationships between God and people, or between people.

This is an appropriate place to start the Apocrypha, on Wednesday 14 February 2018. Firstly, it is Ash Wednesday – the first day of Lent, when Christians confess their sin, pledge themselves to live simply and focus more on God (at least for the next six weeks until Easter) and practice good works such as giving to charity (or almsgiving, as it used to be called).

The story of Tobit is told in the first person. He presents himself as a faithful Jew living in unfaithful times: his own Jewish tribe had turned to idolatry, yet he still went to Jerusalem to worship; he was exiled among foreigners, yet kept the faith and the rules of kosher; when politics turned against him he became poor, yet still remained faithful to God. Even when, like Job, he suffered physical torment (being blinded by bird droppings) he remained true. At the core of his ethics was the giving of alms.

So on this Ash Wednesday we can take Tobit as an example for a life focussed on our relationship with God, and meeting the needs of other people.

What did eventually break Tobit’s spirit so that he asked God to be allowed to die was when he did not believe his wife, whose story of being given a kid got as a present was actually true. Meanwhile, we are told, it is by the will of God and the ministry of an archangel that at the same time, his relative Sarah in a distant land also finds herself turning to God in despair, as her family has run out of male relatives who can be offered as her fiancé, after seven have died during their engagement (this, remember, is probably fiction, but well plotted fiction).

Sometimes it is the little things that “get us”. An emotionally strong person who can cope with human suffering in their lives may find themselves crying over a character in a well told story; a ruthless person may yet find tenderness in one particular relationship or in the frustrations of unrequited love.

Today is also Valentine’s day, when we remember a saint who was no shrinking violet: soldier and martyr, a tough guy, yet he gave his name to both bold acts of self-sacrifice, and the intimate acts of devoted caring, both of which we call love.

So whether it is a romantic meal with your partner, or giving food to the hungry, or standing up for your faith in the face of persecution, may Valentine bless you today with the love of God.