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Tobit’s biblical theology of work

The Angel Raphael Takes Leave of Old Tobit and his Son Tobias by Pieter Lastman. (Public domain.)

The treasures of earth may be employed for heavenly ends, and thus there is nothing inherently wrong with earning them. But we should always “strive first” for the treasures of heaven and, like Tobit, trust God to provide should times come when earthly treasures are wanting. […]

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Tobit is one of the lesser-known books of the Bible, in no small part because Protestant Bibles since the 19th century commonly omit it. But any Christian, Protestant or otherwise, would benefit from Tobit’s biblical theology of work.

Whether or not it is included in any tradition’s biblical canon, Tobit reflects a deep immersion in the Hebrew law and prophets in the form of an inspiring story of family, duty, faithfulness, and even romance.

It tells the story of Tobit, his wife Anna, and their son Tobias. While the whole narrative is fascinating, I’d like to focus on the beginning. It starts with some background information on Tobit, of the tribe of Naphtali, living in exile in Nineveh after the Assyrian conquest of the northern kingdom of Israel. Tobit, it says, “walked in the ways of truth and righteousness all the days of [his] life” (1:3). The book illustrates this through two practices: Tobit gave alms to the poor and buried the dead.

Tobit recounts how he remained faithful to the Lord during Israel’s apostasy, worshiping him at the temple in Jerusalem in Judah rather than offering sacrifices to Baal. In obedience to the law, he gave one tenth of his income to the priests, one tenth to Jerusalem, and “[a] third tenth I would give to the orphans and widows and to the converts who had attached themselves to Israel” (1:8).

After Israel was conquered in fulfillment of the warnings of the prophets, Tobit and his family were carried off into exile in Nineveh. “Because I was mindful of God with all my heart,” Tobit recounts, “the Most High gave me favor and good standing with [the Assyrian king] Shalmaneser, and I used to buy everything he needed. Until his death I used to go into Media, and buy for him there” (1:12-14). Thus, as a blessing in reward for his faithfulness, God raised Tobit up to become a sort of minister of trade for Assyria.

This, in turn, enabled Tobit to continue to give to the poor and bury the dead (1:16-18):

In the days of Shalmaneser I performed many acts of charity to my kindred, those of my tribe. I would give my food to the hungry and my clothing to the naked; and if I saw the dead body of any of my people thrown out behind the wall of Nineveh, I would bury it. I also buried any whom King Sennacherib put to death when he came fleeing from Judea in those days of judgment that the king of heaven executed upon him because of his blasphemies. For in his anger he put to death many Israelites; but I would secretly remove the bodies and bury them.

This, however, did not go over well with the Assyrians (1:18-20):

So when Sennacherib looked for them he could not find them. Then one of the Ninevites went and informed the king about me, that I was burying them; so I hid myself. But when I realized that the king knew about me and that I was being searched for to be put to death, I was afraid and ran away. Then all my property was confiscated; nothing was left to me that was not taken into the royal treasury except my wife Anna and my son Tobias.

Here, in just the first chapter of this book, we see the following:

  • The importance and value of almsgiving
  • The even greater importance of faith in the resurrection, evidenced through the burial of the dead
  • How material prosperity can enable good and faithful works
  • How good works and faith are more important than material prosperity, even more than all one’s possessions

John Wesley famously exhorted Christians in his day to “Gain all you can … Save all you can … Give all you can.” Gaining enables saving, and saving enables giving.

Tobit follows this same pattern but offers an additional qualification about what to prioritize if one must choose between honest material gain, even for a noble purpose, and faithfulness to God. Indeed, it stands as an Old Testament example of that saying of the Lord:

Do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

The treasures of earth may be employed for heavenly ends, and thus there is nothing inherently wrong with earning them. But we should always “strive first” for the treasures of heaven and, like Tobit, trust God to provide should times come when earthly treasures are wanting.

Dylan Pahman

Dylan Pahman is a research fellow at the Acton Institute, where he serves as executive editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He earned his MTS in Historical Theology from Calvin Theological Seminary. In addition to his work as an editor, Dylan has authored several peer-reviewed articles, conference papers, essays, and one book: Foundations of a Free & Virtuous Society (Acton Institute, 2017). He has also lectured on a wide variety of topics, including Orthodox Christian social thought, the history of Christian monastic enterprise, the Reformed statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper, and academic publishing, among others.