The Curse of Tobit – A Narrative Analysis with Reference to the Hermeneutical Questions of Inerrancy vs. Authority in Regards to the Discursive Truth-Telling Potency of Mythology and its Corresponding Interpretive Import in the Apocryphal Book of Tobit

Matthew Lipscomb
Dr. Barry Matlock, UTC

Old Testament Survey, Final Paper, 11/28/12

 

The Curse of Tobit

A Narrative Analysis with Reference to the Hermeneutical Questions of Inerrancy vs. Authority in Regards to the Discursive Truth-Telling Potency of Mythology and its Corresponding Interpretive Import in the Apocryphal Book of Tobit

 

 

            The Book of Tobit: A Less Historical & More Mythological Work – A Preliminary Introduction

The book of Tobit has the unfortunate distinction of being one of the many books that have been traditionally excluded from scripture in the Protestant tradition. Whereas it is still included in the Anglican and Catholic cannons – its removal from the cannon and placement into the Apocrypha was reasoned through the idea that it was at best inspirational in nature – and at its worst…completely fabricated.  While the exact historicity of a work is generally more of a question of Historical Criticism – it also bears an instructive meaning into the process of Narrational Criticism. Did that which is portrayed in the story actually take place? Was it understood to be a mythological ‘story’ by the ancient readers – or – was it passed off as being something historical and accurate by the ancient authors? The respective interpenetrations of historical and narrational critical methods are crucial in this regard – but they don’t tell the whole story. And for the rest of the story, the burden lies within the engagement of Narrational Criticism.

 

 

            The Tobit Narrative

The book of Tobit tells the story of Tobit, his wife, Anna, his son, Tobias, and how his son came to meet his wife, Sarah. It is told through a first-person narrative style, where Tobit is the primary speaker and teller of his own story. Tobit begins by describing himself as being a righteous man, who observed all the statues of the Lord (Tobit 1:3). Tobit tells us that during the Exile, he and his family were whisked away to Assyria (1:10) and that there was much compromise with many in his tribe – but that he had remained faithful and continued to journey to Jerusalem to make tithes there (1:7).  During this time, he gained the favor of Shalmaneser and became a buyer for him (1:16) and he began to do well for himself financially. For a period of time, he had to go into hiding – because it was found out that he has been burying the bodies of his kindred, who have been executed by the wicked King Sennacherib and a death decree was subsequently put upon his head (1:19). Fortunately, he was able to return home after the death of the King (1:21) and even then, only after an intercessory act executed on his behalf by a relative named Ahiker, who was in a position of political power wherein he could afford Tobit some degree of protection, (1:22).

After his return, all was restored (2:1), but later, he found another dead body and prepared it for burial (2:5). His neighbors mocked him for doing the same thing that got him into so much trouble before (2:8), and that night he washed himself and slept next to a wall in his courtyard. (2:9).  What he did not realize, however, was that there was an abundance of sparrows on the wall, and conseqently dung accidently got into his eyes, which  in tern then blinded him (2:10). After an argument with his wife over a goat that they were given, which he believed she had stolen – he offers up a prayer for his own death because of his great distress (3:2-6).

In chapter three, we are introduced to the character of Sarah. Sarah has had the misfortune of having somehow garnered the attraction of a  supernatural demon, Asmodeus, who we are told by Tobit, has killed each one of her 7 consecutive husbands; each after their respective weddings, but before the consummation of their vows (3:8). She considered suicide, but refrained from the act out of honor to her father (3:9). Sarah then offered up a sincere and essentially heart-rending prayer, which takes place at the same time, as Tobit’s own prayers are being conducted – and they are each heard by the Lord (3:16). In response to them – the Lord sent an angel, Raphael, who both heals Tobit and binds Asmodeus, keeping him from further tormenting Sara. Eventually, Sara and Tobit’s son, Tobias, marry. The rest of the book tells the story of the angel Raphael’s dealings in these affairs and how he answers their prayers in terms of the grace and favor of the Lord upon Tobias, Sara, and the rest of their families.

 

            The Discursive Truth-telling of Mythology vs. the  Inferential Intuititivity of Perceived Historicities in a Constructive & Authentic Hermeneutic.

 

In recent years, among conservative Christians, the issue of inerrancy has come into the forefront, over and over. Other theologians have  conversely countered this trend with a counter-assertion of the importance of authority – arguing that it is a more responsible interpretive hermeneutic from which to work.  The reasoning behind the thoroughgoing assertion of inerrancy, as an exclusive, necessary hermeneutic method/interpretive strategy, is essentially a weltanschauung/worldview that is born out of what is tantamount to more or less the end-point derivative of a modernist mindset: one where ‘scientific accuracy’ and ‘reproducibility’ are the real prime movers in the epistemological mix – and not the message of the text itself and its own self-asserting authority. Inerrancy, by its nature, trumps the idea of any authoritative quotient being present in a non-historical text. If these same standards were held against most modern writing – only historical, documentative written works would remain – and all other forms of writings would be committed to the flames, at least in terms of having any intrinsic or inspirational value. If this kind of thinking were carried out to the full extent, then writings such as C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia and J.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings books would lose their own sense of the near canonical authority that they at least indirectly enjoy among Conservatives – however both true and ironic as this may be.[1] This opens up an important question into the value of a given text – specifically, its authority or right to inspire, establish doctrine, and then teach; either on a personal-existential level, or on a church doctrinal ecclesiastical level – as all of these books have been, once again – by virtue of their remakes into movies – thrust into the forefront of the public theological imagination and their value as an asset for such endeavors has neither been lost, nor squandered by those who are the most eager to both explain and inculcate the values that they contain into present and forthcoming generations.

It would seem that to exclude all that is written and interpreted through the lens of the imagination would indeed be a crass move. Is it equally crass to assume that everything that is ‘imaginative’ is necessarily equal to the ‘actual’? Somewhere along the line, some degree of weight must be given to the ‘mythological,’ just as it is also given to the ‘historical.’ The work of the postmodern philosopher and linguist Jurgen Habermas sets itself at this corrective-to-an-overreaching modernity task.  For Habermas, the greatest asset of mythological narratives is their deep and intrinsic capacitance – not just for Absolute, or Historical Truths; as much as these things may or may not be important – but more so for their ability to convey Discursive Truths, or potentially non-intuitive ideas; ones that have arguably served as the bedrock of Western Civilization for much of its better history. In Habermas’ thought, the most important ideas that are imparted into a culture, are the ones that come from the imagination, and are the ones that are best told through it- and not necessarily through the structured, reproducibility of a sterile, intuition-only method of finding truth.[2] For the ancients – this was much of the purpose of Mythology: it told not as much the history and the stories of the gods, but more so of importance, was the telling of the truths behind the stories[3] – the narratives of which were much more important to the tellers of the stories, then whether or not they actually ever took place. In this sense, Modernism has inverted the criticality of both the Subjective Writing that drives Imagination and its concurrent Discursive Truth-telling – placing above it a more highly valued Objective Writing style and a bias towards its corresponding methods that emphasize Intuitive Truth.

 

What have been the results of this ‘inversion’ – in terms of biblical hermeneutics? The book of Tobit tells this tale as well – perhaps also discursively.

           

 

In Conclusion

Historical Criticism has long ago confined the book of Tobit to the realm of Mythology. Even when the Christian cannon was being argued – it was understood that it had even been excluded from the Jewish cannon – and had been placed into their own Apocrypha. It seemed natural to place it within our own. Much of the events, names, and even times of the events are so far skewed from what is known with a great degree of resolute certainty, that it is almost universally agreed to be a story that was told – and not an event that was recalled.  But does this leave it completely devoid of value? Why have Protestants cursed the book to non-relevance? None of the miracles that take place in it are any more astounding then those that are taken as actual historical events: those related in both Christian and Jewish Cannon books. The Book of Tobit is rarely heard of or even known by most Evangelical Protestants – and one can spend their whole life in a succession of sermons and Sunday school lessons and never hear about Tobit, Tobias and Sara.  Are their stories really that uninspired?

 

It can and should be argued that a culture that is stripped of its imagination is degraded by the vulgarity of its own overbearing modernity. It is for this reason, that most Christians, even those more serious among them, like Evangelicals, still celebrate Christmas, Easter, and Halloween. Many of the most conservative of their number, will still dress their children in monster & ghost costumes, leave them Easter baskets, and tell them about a man named Chris Kringle. They know that there are no ghosts running wild on October 31st, that there is no such thing as the Easter bunny, and that a fat man will not come down their chimney and leave presents and take the milk and cookies.  A few adults will refuse to “lie” to their children – out of their own stubborn, sublime modernity – but almost all will tell the tall tales to wide-eyed children- and will do so with great passion. Why? Because we know that these stories are still important. Even if we suffer from a form of cognitive dissonance – in terms of recognizing a cultural value in their inclusion, while denying the also important role of a religious one. Perhaps it is a reaction to a modern age of growing disbelief – that we feel that we must argue that the stories behind our faith, must correspondingly & necessarily be thought of as being “modern” themselves.

 

This is the curse of Tobit: the curse of Modernity; to be stripped of its authority, because it is both Mythological – and Religious.   But is religious belief necessarily different? Must it be subject to such harsh delineations? It is the opinion of this present writer that it should not always be so. Hopefully in the future, these stories – and others like them – will regain their hermeneutical authority and their right to speak with the authority of the Truths[4] that they have to tell; the truths behind the events and the actualities themselves. The truths that still remain – when the stories are forgotten, the names remised and the cultures confined to history books.

Forthcoming generations must find them again – even if they are dissuaded by whatever cultural impositions they transiently embrace.  This is the hope of each generation for the next. This is the hope – of every storyteller.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

 

 

 

Bohman, James, and William Rehg. “Jurgen Habermas (Stanford University Dictionary of Philosophy).” Stanford University Dictionary of Philosophy. Stanford University. 9 6, 2011. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/habermas/) (accessed 11 27, 2012).

 

Lewis, C.S. The Chronicles of Narnia. New York, NY: Macmillian Publishing, 1970.

—. The Four Loves. New York, N.Y.: Harcourt Inc.

 

Oxford University. The New Oxford Annotated Bible – New Revised Standard Version, With Apocrypha. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2010.

 

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Lord of the Rings. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1993.

 

 

 

 

 

 

(2,091 words, 2,530 w/endnotes)


[1] It is said that C.S. Lewis said that his novels were more important to him, because he felt like he could say more, and say it more importantly and in better terms, then anything he felt he could have said or tried to say in any of his other expressly theological works such has his book The Four Loves. In this sense, Lewis had a keen understanding of the importance of discursive truth-telling in a story vs. the systematic theological assertions he sought to make directly (and therefore, essentially intuitively) elsewhere.

[2] “…Habermas proposes a multi-dimensional conception of reason that expresses itself in different forms of cognitive validity: not only in truth claims about the empirical world, but also in rightness claims about the kind of treatment we owe each other as persons, authenticity claims about the good life, technical-pragmatic claims about the means suitable to different goals, and so on. As he acknowledges, the surface grammar of speech acts does not suffice to establish this range of validity types. Rather, to ground the multi-dimensional system of validity claims, one must supplement semantic analysis with a pragmatic analysis of the different sorts of argumentative discourse—the different “logics of argumentation”—through which each type can be intersubjectively justified (TCA 1: 8–42). Thus, a type of validity claim counts as distinct from other types only if one can establish that its discursive justification involves features that distinguish it from other types of justification. Whether or not his pragmatic theory of meaning succeeds, the discursive analysis of validity illuminates important differences in the argumentative demands that come with different types of justifiable claims. To see how Habermas identifies these different features, it is first necessary to understand the general structures of argumentation. “ (from http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/habermas/)

[3] Meaning behind or even between the narrative’s topologies & elements; as in terms of having a sense of discursivity to its method of truth-finding for the audience – and not necessarily the directness of its antonym, Intuitivity (which would reflect Modernity, in its own intrinsic essence).

[4] ‘Capital “T” Truths’ are sometimes, in Christian Apologetics circles referred to as being truths that are ‘Absolute’ – or foundational and referentially non-relative; being ‘always and everywhere true for everyone,’ regardless of their situational contexts. In terms of the present argument, this is what is referenced here. In the case of Tobit, the Truth of the narrative is that God can hear the desperate pleas of those who serve Him, regardless of the despondency from which they come and the direness of the situation – and can correspondingly bring amazing things to pass for those who love and trust in Him.

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