Thursday, July 5, 2007

Bible Woman: Anna, Wife of Tobit

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The woman in the Bible Women Widget for this week is Anna, the wife of Tobit, whose story is told in the Book of Tobit.

This is one of my favorite books of the Bible, and is found in both the Catholic and Orthodox Bibles, although it is no longer included in most Protestant Bibles, having been classified with the "apocrypha." That means it is part of the King James Bible, but it is grouped separately from the canonical books. You can read the King James version of the Book of Tobit online - and if you have never read the book, it is one that I highly recommend.

Tobit, the hero of the book, is a pious Jew living during the time of the exile in Nineveh. He is devoted to God, and risks everything to go out and bury a fellow Jew whose body was thrown into the street. Through a series of events connected with this pious action, he goes blind. His wife Anna works to support the family, and the book features some wonderful dialogue between the two of them that reveals a domestic intimacy and personal quality that is quite remarkable for a Biblical text.

For example, one day Anna is given a goat by her employers to bring home. Although her husband Tobit is blind, he can hear the goat bleating, and he thinks she has stolen the goat. She indignantly tells him that is not the case at all. Here is how Tobit tells the story in his own words:
And my wife Anna did take women's works to do. And when she had sent them home to the owners, they paid her wages, and gave her also besides a kid. And when it was in my house, and began to cry, I said unto her, From whence is this kid? is it not stolen? render it to the owners; for it is not lawful to eat any thing that is stolen. But she replied upon me, It was given for a gift more than the wages. Howbeit I did not believe her, but bade her render it to the owners: and I was abashed at her. But she replied upon me, Where are thine alms and thy righteous deeds?
Tobit may be famous for his righteous deeds, but Anna does not like being accused of theft when she is simply working as hard as she can to support the family!

Tobit has a son, Tobias, and most of the book is occupied with the story of how Tobias goes on a long and dangerous journey in order to recover some funds that his father has left deposited in another city. Tobias also rescues a kinswoman, Sarah, who is being tormented by a demon. He marries her, and brings her back home with him. In these adventures, Tobias is accompanied by the angel Raphael, in disguise, and there are many beautiful European paintings which depict Tobias together with the angel, sometimes showing him as a mere child, and at other times showing him as a young man. Tobias and the angel are also accompanied by a loyal pet dog on their journey! Tobias even acquires some medicine which restores his father's sight at the end of the story.

Of course, Anna is not happy when her husband sends their son out on this long and dangerous journey. She does not think it is worth risking his life in order to recover the money; even though they are impoverished, it is enough to get by, at least as far as Anna is concerned!
But Anna his mother wept, and said to Tobit, Why hast thou sent away our son? is he not the staff of our hand, in going in and out before us? Be not greedy to add money to money: but let it be as refuse in respect of our child. For that which the Lord hath given us to live with doth suffice us. Then said Tobit to her, Take no care, my sister; he shall return in safety, and thine eyes shall see him. For the good angel will keep him company, and his journey shall be prosperous, and he shall return safe. Then she made an end of weeping.
Anna stops weeping, but you know she is worried for their son.

Although Tobias is slow in returning home simply becuase he is celebrating his wedding feast at the house of his father-in-law, his parents do not know that, and they become terribly worried when he does not come back:
Now Tobit counted every day: and when the days of the journey were expired, and they came not, Then Tobit said, Are they detained? or is Gabael dead, and there is no man to give him the money? Therefore he was very sorry. Then his wife said unto him, My son is dead, seeing he stayeth long; and she began to wail him, and said, Now I care for nothing, my son, since I have let thee go, the light of mine eyes. To whom Tobit said, Hold thy peace, take no care, for he is safe. But she said, Hold thy peace, and deceive me not; my son is dead. And she went out every day into the way which they went, and did eat no meat on the daytime, and ceased not whole nights to bewail her son.
Finally, she sees him coming home at last: "Now Anna sat looking about toward the way for her son. And when she espied him coming, she said to his father, Behold, thy son cometh, and the man that went with him."

The man, of course, is not just a man, but is the angel Raphael in disguise. In the image below, which comes an illuminated manuscript of the early 14th century, you can see Tobias together with the angel, Raphael, on the right, together with the faithful dog at Tobias's feet. Then, on the left, you can see Anna, together with her husband Tobit, who is blind. I like the way that Anna seems engaged in dialogue with Tobit right here in the painting, just as she engages him in dialogue in the Biblical text itself!



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