As Catholic Christians, we are all encouraged to read the Bible.
But when we try, we usually (and logically) start with the Old Testament. If you’re like me, you get through Genesis and Exodus pretty well, but then the going gets a little tough: a heavy dose of genealogy, huge numbers of laws and restrictions and rituals — and killing. Lots of wars. Towns and villages with wonderful but unpronounceable names get wiped out. The people in charge — on both sides, the people of Israel and the various “-ites” who don’t want the neighborhood to change — do terrible things to one another.
I guess I could summarize my own views in colloquial terms by saying that while Yahweh can be tough to deal with, it’s usually the people of God’s fault. They never quite seem to learn the lesson that forgetting or ignoring God never has favorable consequences. But they seem to do it all the time anyway.
The more we know the Old Testament, the better we can appreciate the radical upgrade Jesus brings in the New.
Amidst the occasional dreariness, there’s a bright sparking jewel of a book: it has a love story, a bad guy, virtue rewarded, a helping angel, thousands of reasons to glorify God, and … a pet?
I’m talking about the Book of Tobit. Since the Church considers is “canonical,” it’s in our Catholic Bibles. The Protestants consider it “apocryphal,” meaning that they dispute its authorship and inspiration. Such theological differences are above my pay grade.
To get an idea of the story behind the Book of Tobit, you can’t do better than to start with Wikipedia. You’ll get all the details there that I can’t give you here.
The book features a wonderful cast of characters — including, as I mentioned, a friendly archangel (Raphael) and the family dog (unnamed), both of whom join the hero on his quest — and reads like a short story. You won’t find yourself struggling through lists of names, details of odd rituals, and tales of bloodshed. The New American Bible’s translation is entertaining, not an adjective normally associated with Scripture.
In today’s world, being entertaining is a definite plus. It probably doesn’t require an advanced degree in psychology to figure that humanity might retain more of what we learn in pleasant circumstances than in those less so. The Book of Tobit is concerned with many of the same themes as other Old Testament books, but to me at least the presentation of these themes is accomplished with more honey and less vinegar. The fact that the Book of Tobit is written almost as a folk tale, replete with elements of Middle Eastern culture not found elsewhere in the Bible, makes it more approachable than the books of the Pentateuch with their relentless concentration on discipline and scrupulous obedience to the Almighty’s commands (and punishment for disregarding them).
The Book of Tobit approaches morality from the standpoint of “this is what happens when you find favor with God” rather than “this is what happens if you disobey God.” Obviously — given the unfortunate tendency of God’s people to be lax in their duties — a stern manual of behavior was necessary, so that (so to speak) Yahweh and His chosen people could be on the same page: this is what you have to do to remain in My favor. But the number of times the chosen people decided to ignore the rules — despite being fully aware of the consequences — is what can make parts of the Old Testament depressing. And most depressing of all is the realization that all these failures not only didn’t stop, but haven’t stopped, as even the most superficial look at humanity today will demonstrate.
Reading the Book of Tobit will provide you with an opportunity to appreciate that in the Old Testament, God has interacted with His creation in a way that in many respects provides a foretaste of what His Son will bring to the world. It is in some respects an extended parable about love — God’s for man, man’s for one another — that in my opinion deserves more attention among Catholics than it may have gotten heretofore.
The Liturgy of the Church unfortunately does not feature it on Sunday Mass at all, but it does dedicate a week every other year to it at daily Mass, features it for the Old Testament reading for the memorial of St. Jerome Emiliani on February 8, gives it as one of seven Old Testament options for the Common of Religious, as well as for two of the 17 Old Testament options for the Sacrament of Matrimony. Unless you come to Church on those occasions and those options are chosen, however, you won’t hear it.
That’s why I’d urge you to get your Bible and read it. And I hope you come to feel the same way about it as I do.
Bill Black, from Bourne, is a “charter member” of St. Elizabeth Seton Parish in North Falmouth (now St. Joseph, Guardian of the Holy Family Parish). He is married for 53 years to the love of his life, blessed with two sons and four grandkids. Retired, he is also an Irish traditional musician and photographer of boats on the Cape Cod Canal.