The article of the month
Is That in the Bible? by Father Anthony Giambrone, o.p.
What English speakers mean by the phrase, “When it rains, it pours,” the French and Germans say less colorfully and more directly: “Misfortune never comes alone.” This apparent law of the universe—and the apt image of rain—explains why I am not the only one who, on an already very bad day, has had the unpleasant and culminating experience of being pooped on by a bird. The same precise note of cosmically mordant humor helps launch the biblical narrative of Tobit’s unlikely tale. Thus, bizarre as the scene of bird droppings blinding Tobit can seem, it is certainly one of the most immediate and humanizing notes that reach us from the far distant world of the Scriptures. The Bible too knows the plight of the unlucky, pooped-on man.
Significantly, Tobit’s outrageous misfortune comes as the shocking and unjust reward for his selfless works of charity, notably for burying the unburied dead. First of all, when someone snitches on his charitable doings, his property is unaccountably confiscated by the king, until, as Tobit says, nothing was left to me that was not taken into the royal treasury except my wife Anna and my son Tobias (Tob 1:20). A short time later, at the feast of Pentecost, having again buried a poor, murdered kinsman, Tobit sleeps outside with his face uncovered, on account of the heat. I did not know, he says, that there were sparrows on the wall; their fresh droppings fell into my eyes and produced white films…[and] my vision was obscured by the white films, until I became completely blind (2:10). When it rains, it rains toxic guano in the eyes.
A number of folk motifs are clearly at work in this sequence. The Greek tragedy of Antigone hovers in the background, for instance. Scholars are quite right, as well, to detect in Tobit echoes of Job, whose own fate and unaccountable misfortune was in open contradiction to his just merits. The para-biblical text called the Testament of Job highlights just how close the characters of Job and Tobit stood in the late Second Temple period (2nd century b.c.–1st century a.d.). In that text, Job, like Tobit, is celebrated specifically for his many great works of charity.
The specific motif of blindness introduced by the final indignity of the bird droppings that fall in Tobit’s eyes is not incidentally chosen. His descent into darkness is a poetic motif that structures the story in its whole grand downwards-and-upwards motion. Darkness thus represents Tobit’s symbolic death as the un-vindicated just man: What joy is left for me any more? I am a man without eyesight; I cannot see the light of heaven, but lie in darkness like the dead who no longer see the light. Although still alive, I am among the dead (Tob 5:10).
Yet, in the end, Tobit will be resurrected and repaid. He will recover his sight and return to the light, regaining not only his vision, but his son and his pile of loaned money as well—adding to this a pretty new daughter-in-law: all as the well-earned interest on his life of charitable work. In the song he sings at the book’s end, Tobit’s own journey from death to new life becomes a lesson of hope for all of exiled Israel. He leads down to Hades in the lowest regions of the earth/ and he brings up from the great abyss (Tob 13:2). Or translated into folk wisdom: for the just, “After rain comes sun.”
Father Anthony Giambrone, o.p., is a Dominican priest of the Province of Saint Joseph and professor of the New Testament at the École biblique de Jérusalem.