09 March 2013

Preaching from an Apocryphal book on Saint Patrick’s Day

Tobias and the Archangel Raphael, after Adam Elsheimer (mid-17th century, The National Gallery, London)

Patrick Comerford

The Revised Common Lectionary provides for the possibility of three Old Testament readings on Sunday week, 17 March:

● Isaiah 43: 16-21 (for the Fifth Sunday in Lent);
● Tobit 13: 1b-7 (for Saint Patrick’s Day);
● Deuteronomy 32: 1-9 (for those who do not want to use a Deuterocanonical reading on Saint Patrick’s Day).

I thought I should prepare some notes on Tobit for this morning’s Bible study, as for some of you this may be one of your few chances to consider how you might use an “Apocryphal” reading in preparation for a sermon.

Tobit 13: 1b-7

‘Blessed be God who lives for ever,
because his kingdom lasts throughout all ages.
For he afflicts, and he shows mercy;
he leads down to Hades in the lowest regions of the earth,
and he brings up from the great abyss,
and there is nothing that can escape his hand.
Acknowledge him before the nations, O children of Israel;
for he has scattered you among them.
He has shown you his greatness even there.
Exalt him in the presence of every living being,
because he is our Lord and he is our God;
he is our Father and he is God for ever.
He will afflict you for your iniquities,
but he will again show mercy on all of you.
He will gather you from all the nations
among whom you have been scattered.
If you turn to him with all your heart and with all your soul,
to do what is true before him,
then he will turn to you
and will no longer hide his face from you.
So now see what he has done for you;
acknowledge him at the top of your voice.
Bless the Lord of righteousness,
and exalt the King of the ages.
In the land of my exile I acknowledge him,
and show his power and majesty to a nation of sinners:
“Turn back, you sinners, and do what is right before him;
perhaps he may look with favour upon you and show you mercy.”
As for me, I exalt my God,
and my soul rejoices in the King of heaven.


The version of the Book of Tobit in the New Revised Standard Version Bible, unlike most other translations of the Book of Tobit in the English language, is based upon a longer version of the text in Greek found in the Codex Sinaiticus and supplemented from the Old Latin. The shorter version of the text in Greek has been the traditional Greek text used for translating the book throughout the history of the Church. However, the longer text is now almost universally judged to be the more original of the two texts.

There is a third text in some English translations based on the text of the Latin Vulgate.

The book was originally written in Hebrew or Aramaic, probably between the years 225 and 175 BC. The oldest text fragments of the Book of Tobit are in Hebrew and were recovered in the 20th century in the Dead Sea Scroll caves (Cave IV) at Qumran and in excavations at Masada.

The Book of Tobit introduces a new genre of literature to the Bible – the novel, and he uses a variety of literary techniques, including monologue and dialogue, prayers and hymns, demonology and angelology, wisdom sayings and deathbed testimonies. The writer may have used true events for the background of the drama in the book, but in the first chapter, the writer indicates his intention to communicate truth through the medium of novel.

The writer introduces a number of comical historical anachronisms that would have been immediately apparent to Jewish readers at the time. The book’s primary emphasis is on the everyday practical, moral and wisdom-tradition aspects of being good and doing good.

Perhaps the author is suggesting that although this book should not be considered among the corpus of sacred histories, nevertheless it contains timeless morality and spiritual lesson that show the sovereign care exercised by God on behalf of those who fear him.

Despite the fictional historical settings for the events, we can see evidence of the prophetic within the book. In Chapter 13, Tobit prophesies the future blessings for the righteous in the New Jerusalem. In language that seems to anticipate information God would later reveal in the New Testament to Saint John in the Book of Revelation, Tobit speaks of the glories of the New Jerusalem, whose gates “will be built with sapphire and emerald” (13: 16), and whose streets and buildings will be encrusted with precious stones and gold.

Summarising the story:

An icon telling the story of Tobit, Tobias and Raphael

The Book of Tobit tells the story of Tobit, a faithful Jew from the tribe of Naphtali whose family are exiled from Samaria into Upper Galilee and who continues to worship in Jerusalem until he is forced into exile in Nineveh in Assyria.

Tobit is struck blind and falls into poverty and is blinded by cataracts as a direct result of the pious deed of burying fellow Jews who have been murdered on the last day of Pentecost. He sends his son Tobias into a far land to find a wife and to obtain an inheritance.

While doing this, Tobias delivers the woman Sarah from Asmodeus, the demon who had claimed the lives of her seven previous husbands on their wedding night. He secures this with the help of the angel Raphael disguised as Azariah and by the sacrifice of a fish. Of course, the fish would later become the earliest of all Christian symbols for Christ, and the wedding banquet is a Gospel image of the Kingdom of God.

When the wedding celebrations are over, Tobias and Sarah return to Tobit’s house. On his deathbed, Tobit has Tobias promise to move the family from Nineveh to Ecbatana in Media, where Tobias lived to a rich old age.

Some scholars believe that the closing chapters (13 and 14) were added at a later stage. These chapters include Tobit’s hymn of praise (13: 1-17), from which this reading is excerpted.

This hymn of praise, which echoes many New Testament passages, including Isaiah 40-55, is divided into two parts:

● The first part (verses 1–8) is a song of praise that echoes themes from the Psalms, I Samuel and Isaiah.
● The second part (verses 9–18) is addressed to Jerusalem in the style of those prophets who spoke of a new and ideal Jerusalem (see Isaiah 60; cf. Revelation 21).

Joyful praise and words for joy and gladness occur throughout this hymn of praise (see verses 1, 7, 10, 11, 13, 14, 16, 18).

Preaching from the reading:

The Book of Tobit is replete with the commandments and wisdom of God as well as parallels with the story of Christ – the only Son who is sent by the Father to redeem a Bride from death. This story has inspired an oratorio by Handel, and many great works of art – by Rembrandt, Jan Steen, Abraham De Pape, Jan Massys, Barent Fabritius, Bernardo Strozzi, Pieter Lastman, Gerrit Dou … and so on.

There is even a stained glass window depicting Tobias and the Fish in Whitechurch Church of Ireland parish church in Rathfarnham, given by Don Tidey in thanksgiving for being freed from his kidnapping.

But how would you relate this story to Saint Patrick on Sunday week, 17 March? Perhaps a new Pope will be elected by then, and you may want to say something about that instead of working your way through the choice of readings. But if you are preaching on Sunday week, these are some of the themes that might emerge:

● The stories about Tobias and Patrick are about slavery and liberation from darkness
● They are stories about exile and being protected by God
● They are stories about deliverance from evil, represented in banishing the snakes or killing the fish
● They are about faithfulness in the midst of idolatry
● They are about bringing God’s message to other nations
● They are stories that teach the value of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving

What else can you find in this reading?

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and an Adjunct Assistant Professor, Trinity College Dublin. These notes were prepared for a Bible study in a tutorial group with part-time students on the MTh course on 9 March 2013

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