Thursday, October 23, 2014

Similarities to The Odyssey of the Books of Job and Tobit


Damien F. Mackey




The resemblance of Tobit to the Odyssey in particular was not lost on

that great student of literature [Saint] Jerome ….


This combined biblical influence upon Homer is, I think, more intelligible in light of my article:


Job's Life and Times


in which I have identified Job with Tobit’s son, Tobias.

Some Compelling Comparisons


I need to point out right at the start that it sometimes happens that incidents attributed to the son, in the Book of Tobit, in Job, might, in The Odyssey, be attributed to the son's father, or vice versa (or even be attributed to some less important character).

The same sort of mix occurs with the female characters.



These are some of the parallels that I have picked up:



The two chief male characters


Tobit and his son, Tobias/Job, equate approximately to Odysseus and his son, Telemachus.


Unlike the pious Tobit, though, Odysseus was a crafty and battle-hardened pagan, with a love of strong drink and an eye for women {goddesses}. But he nevertheless pined for his true wife, Penelope.


The Suitors


These unpleasant and self-serving characters are especially prominent and numerous in Homer’s The Odyssey.

In the Book of Tobit, “seven” suitors in turn meet an unhappy fate in their desire for Sarah.


The Sought-After Woman


In The Odyssey, she is Penelope.

She is Sarah in the Book of Tobit.


The 'Divine' Messenger


From whom the son, especially, receives help during his travels.


In the Book of Tobit, this messenger is the angel Raphael (in the guise of ‘Azarias’).

In The Odyssey, it is the goddess Athene (in the guise of ‘Mentes’).


Satan, or Adversary (Book of Job)


He is Poseidon in The Odyssey, the god who hounds down the story’s hero.

He is Asmodeus in the Book of Tobit.


According to the following, this Asmodeus is to be identified with the Iranian, Aeshma Daeva (


Bearing just as obvious a connection with non-biblical literature, I believe, is the demon Asmodeus (Tobit 3:8), who is doubtless to be identified, on purely morphological grounds, with Aeshma Daeva, a figure well known in ancient Iranian religion ….


The Friends


Whereas, in the Book of Tobit, the young man’s journeying takes him amongst kindred folks (e.g. Raguel and Gabael),

in The Odyssey, it is to the homelands of certain Greek returnées from Troy (e.g. Nestor and Menelaus) that young Telemachus travels.


The Dog


Yes, even a dog, or dogs, figure in both stories.

P. Reardon, commenting upon this particular parallel in The Wide World of Tobit, follows the typical pattern of thought according to which the pagan mythology has precedence over the Hebrew version:


The Larger World



The resemblance of Tobit to the Odyssey in particular was not lost on that great student of literature, Jerome, as is evident in a single detail of his Latin translation of Tobit in the Vulgate. Intrigued by the literary merit of Tobit, but rejecting its canonicity, the jocose and sometimes prankish Jerome felt free to insert into his version an item straight out of the Odyssey—namely, the wagging of the dog’s tail on arriving home with Tobias in 11:9—Tunc praecucurrit canis, qui simul fuerat in via, et quasi nuntius adveniens blandimento suae caudae gaudebat—“Then the dog, which had been with them in the way, ran before, and coming as if it had brought the news, showed his joy by his fawning and wagging his tail.”16 No other ancient version of Tobit mentions either the tail or the wagging, but Jerome, ever the classicist, was confident his readers would remember the faithful but feeble old hound Argus, as the final act of his life, greeting the return of Odysseus to the home of his father: “he endeavored to wag his tail” (Odyssey 17.302). And to think that we owe this delightful gem to Jerome’s rejection of Tobit’s canonicity!

[End of quote]



There is space here for only a few more of the many further parallels that I have observed between Tobit/Job and The Odyssey:



Further Comparisons


Only Son


Tobias was the only son of Tobit and Anna (cf. Tobit 1:9 and 8:17).

So was Telemachus the only son of Odysseus and Penelope: '[Telemachus] ... you an only son, the apple of your mother's eye...' (II, 47).

Likewise Anna referred to her son, Tobias, as 'the light of my eyes' (Tobit 10:5).

And Telemachus’s uncle will use that identical phrase: 'Telemachus, light of my eyes!' (XVI, 245).


Longing for Death


The aged Tobit, in his utter misery of blindness, longed for death, and thus he prayed to God: 'Command that I now be released from my distress to go to the eternal abode; do not turn Thy face away from me' (Tobit 3:6).

This theme is treated even more starkly, and in more prolonged fashion, in the Book of Job (esp. Ch. 3).

In The Odyssey, it is said of Laërtes that "every day he prays to Zeus that death may visit his house and release the spirit from his flesh" (XV, 239).

And Odysseus, after having learned from Circe about the wretched existence of the dead in Hades, said: 'This news broke my heart. I sat down on the bed and wept. I had no further use for life, no wish to see the sunshine any more' (X, 168).


The Suitors


"On the same day" that Tobit had prayed to be released from this life, Sarah - back home in Midian "was reproached by her father's maids, because she had been given to seven husbands, and the evil demon Asmodeus had slain each of them before he had been with her as his wife" (Tobit 3:7, 8). In the Vulgate version of Tobit, we are informed that these seven suitors had lustful intentions towards Sarah (6:17).

The Odyssey also tells about Penelope, who is tormented by the suitors who have invaded Odysseus’s home and are squandering the family's wealth. Penelope has to resort to the ruse of weaving a winding-cloth - ostensibly intending to make the decision to marry once she has completed it. But each night she undoes the cloth, in order to keep the suitors at bay (I, 28-33; II, 38-39).


The prediction early in the story, that "there'd be a quick death and a sorry wedding for ... all [the suitors]", once Odysseus returned home (I, 32), was to be fulfilled to the letter when he dealt them all a bloody end.

And indeed these words, a "sorry wedding" and a "quick death", might well have been spoken of Sarah's suitors as well, once the demon Asmodeus had finished with them. This Asmodeus is eventually overcome by Tobias, with great assistance from the angel. Asmodeus then "fled to the remotest parts of Egypt, and the angel bound him" (cf. Tobit 7:16 and 7:8:3). Even this episode might have its 'echo' at the beginning of The Odyssey, when the violent god, Poseidon (legendary father of the Athenian hero Theseus - born of two fathers: Poseidon and Aegeus, king of Athens), is found amongst "the distant Ethiopians, the farthest outposts of mankind ..." (I, 25). Ethiopia could indeed be described as "the remotest parts of Egypt".


Heavenly Visitor


... she [Athene] bound under her feet her lovely sandals of untarnished gold, which carried her with the speed of the wind.... Thus she flashed down from the heights of Olympus. On reaching Ithaca she took her stand on the threshold of the court in front of Odysseus' house; and to look like a visitor she assumed the appearance of a Taphian chieftain named Mentes… (I, 27-28).

The reader will quickly pick up the similarities between this text and the relevant part of the Book of Tobit if I simply quote directly from the latter:

The prayer of [Tobit and Sarah] was heard in the presence of the glory of the great God. And Raphael was sent (3:16,17). Then Tobias ... found a beautiful young man, standing girded, as it were ready to walk. And not knowing that he was an angel of God, he saluted him.... 'I am Azarias, the son of the great Ananias' (5:5, 6, 18).


The Questioning


Tobit had interrogated the angel about the latter's identity, asking: 'My brother, to what tribe and family do you belong? Tell me ...', etc., etc. (5:9-12). Raguel exhibited a similar sort of curiosity: 'Where are you from brethren? .... Do you know our brother Tobit? .... Is he in good health?' (7:3, 4).

In The Odyssey, too, this pattern (but with a Greek slant - e.g. the mention of ships) is again most frequent - almost monotonous. Telemachus, for instance, asks Athene: 'However, do tell me who you are and where you come from. What is your native town? Who are your people? And since you certainly cannot have come on foot, what kind of vessel brought you here?' (I, 29).

(For further examples of this pattern of interrogation in The Odyssey, see pp. 72; 118; 164; 175; 208; 220).


Athene replied to Telemachus, using a phrase that I suggest may have come straight out of the Book of Tobit - where towards the end of the story Raphael says: 'I will not conceal anything from you' (12:11). Thus:

'I will tell you everything', answered the bright-eyed goddess Athene. 'My father was the wise prince, Anchialus. My own name is Mentes, and I am a chieftain of the sea-faring Taphians'.


Delaying One’s Guests


Another noticeable tendency in these Israelite writings, as well as in The Odyssey, is for hosts to insist on their guests staying longer than the latter had intended, or had wished. This was perhaps the customary hospitality in ancient Syro-Mesopotamia, because it is common also in Genesis (24:25-26; 29:21-31:41). And it happens in The Book of Tobit, and indeed all the way through The Odyssey as well. For example, Telemachus says to Athene (I, 29): 'Sir, .... I know you are anxious to be on your way, but I beg you to stay a little longer, so that you can bathe and refresh yourself. Then you can go, taking with you as a keepsake from myself something precious and beautiful, the sort of present that one gives to a guest who has become a friend'.

'No', said the bright-eyed goddess. 'I am eager to be on my way; please do not detain me now. As for the gift you kindly suggest, let me take it home with me on my way back. Make it the best you can find, and you won't lose by the exchange'. (Cf. IV, 80; XV, 231-232).

In like manner, Tobias was impatient to leave the sanguine Raguel and return home:

At that time Tobias said to Raguel. 'Send me back, for my father and mother have given up hope of ever seeing me again'.

But his father-in-law said to him, 'Stay with me, and I will send messengers to your father, and they will inform him how things are with you'.

'No, send me back to my father'. So Raguel arose and gave him his wife Sarah and half of his property in slaves, cattle, and money. (10:7, 8-10).


The Dog(s)


(a) The Leaving

"... Telemachus himself set out for the meeting-place, bronze spear in hand, escorted ... by two dogs that trotted beside him" (II, 37).

Also "[Tobias and the angel] both went out and departed, and the young man's dog was with them" (Tobit 5:16).


(b) The Returning

When Telemachus returned home: "The dogs, usually so obstreperous, not only did not bark at the newcomer but greeted him with wagging tails"(XVI, 245).

The dog in the Book of Tobit was equally excited: "Then the dog, which had been with [Tobias and the angel] along the way, ran ahead of them; and coming as if he had brought the news showed his joy by his fawning and wagging his tail" (Tobit 11:9).


Similarities to Other Pagan Drama



…. some readers have found in Tobit similarities to still other pagan themes, such as the legend of Admetus. ….

More convincing, I believe, however, are points of contact with classical Greek theater. Martin Luther observed similarities between Tobit and Greek comedy … but one is even more impressed by resemblances that the Book of Tobit bears to a work of Greek tragedy—the Antigone of Sophocles. In both stories the moral stature of the heroes is chiefly exemplified in their bravely burying the dead in the face of official prohibition and at the risk of official punishment. In both cases a venerable moral tradition is maintained against a political tyranny destructive of piety. That same Greek drama, moreover, provides a further parallel to the blindness of Tobit in the character of blind Teiresias, himself also a man of an inner moral vision important to the theme of the play. ….


The widespread panorama of the Book of Tobit has inclined Reardon - who likens it in this regard to the Book of Job - to view the whole thing as a “universal essay”, including similarities with the Book of Jonah:


The Apocrypha’s Tobit and Literary Tradition


I like to think of the Book of Tobit as a kind of universal essay, in the sense that its author makes considerable effort to place his brief, rather simple narrative within a literary, historical, and moral universe of surprising breadth and diversity, extending through the Fertile Crescent and out both sides. To find comparable dimensions of such large cultural exposure among biblical authors, one would have to go to Ezekiel, Luke, or the narrator of Job.


Tobit’s explicit reference to Jonah is of considerable interest in the light of certain affinities between the two books. First and second, both stories take place about the same time [sic] and both in Mesopotamia. Third, both accounts involve a journey. Fourth, the distressed Tobit, like Jonah, prays to die. Fifth and most strikingly, his son Tobias encounters a fish that attempts—with less success than Jonah’s fish—to swallow him! Finally, in each book the fish serves as a special instrument of Divine Providence.

Besides Jonah, Tobit shows several remarkable affinities to the Book of Job, some of which were noted rather early in Christian exegesis. For example, the title characters of both works shared a zeal for purity of life, almsgiving, and other deeds of charity (Job 1 and 31; Tobit 1–2), patient endurance of trials sent by God … a deep weariness of life itself (Job 7:15; Tobit 3:6), a final vindication by the Lord at the end of each book, and perhaps even a common hope of the resurrection. …. As early as Cyprian in the third century, it was also noted that both men were similarly mocked by wives unable to appreciate their virtue and faith in God…..


Reardon then expands upon this apparent universalism of the Book of Tobit:


The Larger World


Even when the Book of Tobit most closely touches the other biblical literature, however, it sometimes does so along lines reminiscent of, and running parallel to, more extensive traditions outside the Bible.

An obvious and rather large example is the “Golden Rule” in Tobit 4:15, “Do not do to anyone what you yourself hate.” Not only does this prohibition substantially contain the biblical command to love one’s neighbor as oneself … not only, furthermore, does it stand in canonical continuity with the more positive formulation of the same Golden Rule preserved in the Gospels … it is also the equivalent to an ideal found in other ethical philosophies. These latter include Greek authors like Herodotus and Isocrates … and even classical Confucianism. …. This use of the Golden Rule thus assured Tobit a featured place in the entire history of religion and moral philosophy…..

A similar assessment is true, I believe, concerning the way that Tobit develops the religious symbolism of the journey. Obviously that motif had long been part of the Bible, particularly in those sections associated with the Exodus wandering and the return from Babylon … but it was a topic not limited to the Bible. Back near the beginning of the second millennium B.C., the Mesopotamian Gilgamesh Epic had inchoatively explored the religious symbolism of the journey, and that exploration would continue down through some of our greatest literature: the Odyssey, of course, diverse accounts of Jason and the Argonauts, the Aeneid, etc., and eventually the Divine Comedy, itself inspired by all of them. In a more secular form the journey imagery continued with such works as the Endymion of Keats … even after it had been assumed within the ascetical literature of the Church as xeneteia, conceived as both exile and pilgrimage. A classical example of the latter use is found in Step 3 of The Ladder of Divine Ascent by St. John of Mount Sinai.


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