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  • Suspense, Simultaneity, and Divine Providence in the Book of Tobit
  • Ryan S. Schellenberg

“Look at all the works of the Most High,” Ben Sira urges his readers, “they are two by two, one corresponding to the other” (δύο δύο ἓν κατέναντι τοῦ ἑνός [33:15]). This is a sentiment with which the author of the book of Tobit would have been in certain agreement. In Tobit’s carefully ordered narrative world, each problem has its corresponding solution, each need its corresponding fulfillment. Thus, the story ends in perfect equilibrium; there are no loose ends.

The orderliness of this narrative itself corresponds, I will argue, to one of Tobit’s most salient theological emphases—namely, divine providence. According to George W. E. Nickelsburg, the book of Tobit “creates a portrait of a God who carefully orchestrates . . . the dark events of human life and history, working them toward gracious ends.”1 And our hero certainly shows no ambivalence about the reality of God’s providential intervention: “There is nothing that can escape his hand” (13:2), he proclaims in his joyful hymn of praise upon the story’s successful dénouement.2 [End Page 313]

My purpose in this essay is twofold: First, I want to explore the narrative techniques by which the author creates this tale’s reassuring sense of tidiness. In particular, I will suggest that the story’s management of suspense and artful use of simultaneity posit a world in which God is firmly in control. Second, I hope to illuminate the interaction between this author’s fiction and his reality: Tobit’s carefully supervised narrative world is, I will argue, a fitting response to the anxiety and seeming chaos of life in Diaspora—chaos that is itself represented but rendered impotent in the narrative.

First, however, I will risk two brief comments concerning this book’s genre: Emil Schürer, noting Tobit’s salient emphasis on almsgiving, burial, and endogamy, categorized this book among Jewish “didactic and paraenetical stories”—a characterization that continues to exert considerable influence.3 I would not deny that this story presents its readers with moral exempla: the elderly Tobit’s assiduous devotion to Jewish piety certainly does provide a model for life in the Diaspora, and the author’s concern for righteousness is evident in the ethical omnibuses provided by both Tobit and the angel Raphael (4:3–19; 12:6–10). However, such moralizing is but a corollary of the book’s primary aim, for this narrative does its work on a more fundamental level—it constructs a world in which traditional mores make sense.

Second, the sobriety of Tobit’s alleged parenetic purpose has been challenged recently by those who see this as a much more light-hearted book. David McCracken considers Tobit “essentially a comic narrative” that encourages us to laugh at a character who is “obsessed with tribe and family” and “comically overzealous about his own virtues.”4 But Tobit is hardly the only biblical character who claims to have “walked in the ways of truth and righteousness all the days of [his] life” (1:3),5 and we do not accuse David (see Psalm 26) or Hezekiah (see 2 Kgs [End Page 314] 20:3; Isa 38:3) of risible egotism. Moreover, Tobit’s concern for proper burial and endogamous marriage is no more laughable than, for example, the book of Jubilees’ calendrical preoccupation—though indeed it may be difficult for secularized readers like us to take such religious scruples seriously.6

So, although this novel undeniably contains the occasional humorous touch, and although we may find it amusingly superstitious, there is simply no compelling reason to imagine that it was intended as a comedy.7 On the contrary, it is deeply concerned with the wholly serious theme of God’s providence. Indeed, as I hope to demonstrate, the very structure of this narrative emphasizes that God’s ordered universe has not—despite the vagaries of exile—succumbed to chaos.8 Through conscientious management of suspense and artful use of simultaneity, Tobit posits a world in which God is firmly in control.

I. Suspense

In his influential study of the “poetics of biblical narrative,” Meir Sternberg highlights the dilemma that arises from the biblical...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1934-3876
Print ISSN
0021-9231
Pages
pp. 313-327
Launched on MUSE
2011-07-21
Open Access
No
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