M. D. Kiel, The “Whole Truth”: Rethinking Retribution in the Book of Tobit

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 13 (2013) - Review

Kiel, Micah D., The “Whole Truth”: Rethinking Retribution in the Book of Tobit (Library of Second Temple Studies, 82; London: T & T Clark, 2012). Pp. 188. Hardback. US$120.00. ISBN 978-0-567-45885-8.

In Tobit studies, it has become commonplace to characterize the driving theological perspective of the narrative as “Deuteronomic” or “Deuteronomistic,” especially as it applies to the book's view of retribution. This means that the story espouses a doctrine of retribution that posits an intimate link or even a mechanical correlation between act and consequence, which is allegedly found in the book of Deuteronomy as well as other texts that are supposedly Deuteronomistic. The book under review, a revised version of the author's dissertation completed in 2008 at Princeton Theological Seminary, questions this simplistic categorization. The thesis is that it is not apt to label the work as Deuteronomic, as such label does not capture the story's complex view of the reality of human experience, the character of God and the role of creation vis-à-vis retribution. Kiel shows convincingly the complexity of the overall theological tenor of the Book of Tobit by parsing its view of retribution in the context of the entire narrative and by comparing it with contemporaneous texts such as Sirach and 1 Enoch.

Chapter 1 introduces the two major problems the author intends to address in the study, namely to assess whether the label “Deuteronomistic” is a fair and precise description for Tobit, and to re-consider Tobit's view of retribution in light of the entire story. Since the Book of Tobit has a complex textual tradition, in chapter 2 Kiel examines its language, date, provenance, and integrity, arguing for the likelihood of its being a Palestinian composition. With regard to its integrity, Kiel aligns himself with the increasing scholarly tendency to view Tobit as a unified whole. These interpretative considerations provide a firm foundation upon which to build, in later chapters, a compelling case for establishing certain theological affinities of the Tobit narrative with those of other texts which are roughly of the same period and provenance.

As Kiel analyzes retribution with the overall story in mind, he observes that the title character's statements alone suggest, especially in his prayer, a close connection between act and consequence. This is not the same, however, as saying that this is inevitably the position of the author. In fact, Tobit's statement of a straightforward and simplistic doctrine of retribution is ironic when set against the revelatory perspective of the story. Tobit's blindness is not only physical but also theological. Since he does not fully understand his situation, his theological explanation of his fate is the way by which the narrative sets out to critique such an understanding. If Tobit's words are scrutinized against the horizon of the angelic revelation, they will come up short. It is only after Tobit's healing, and upon Raphael's revelation, that Tobit gains the insight on the hidden reality or the whole complex truth about God's role and his condition.

By placing it in conversation with Sirach and 1 Enoch, Kiel shows that the book of Tobit draws upon the myriad of ways in which retribution was conceived and understood at roughly this period in Judaism. These texts reflect the lively debate on how to explain the genesis of evil and the role of God. Tobit's affinities with the theological convictions of these texts show that the book has a much more complex view of retribution than is ordinarily thought in Tobit scholarship.

Kiel observes that in wisdom texts such as Sirach and Job, the vital role of the created order provides a certain nuance in their discussion of retribution and the problem of evil. Furthermore, apocalyptic texts such as 1 Enoch explain the origin of evil not in terms of human action but in terms of the rebellion and dysfunction in the created order. The Book of Watchers and the Astronomical Book imagine humans to be uninvolved, bearing no guilt of the origin of wickedness. The deviations of the created elements from the divine intentions impinge upon righteous humanity. The Epistle of Enoch, however, sees a limited role for humanity. In any case, these apocalyptic texts mine creation theology to explain retribution and the drama of good and evil. Kiel impressively engages these apocalyptic convictions as they find expression in 1 Enoch.

The importance of creation theology in the explanation of the problem of evil, the role of humanity, and retribution in these texts gives Kiel the point of contact or the necessary hint to investigate the role of the created order in the Book of Tobit. The birds that indirectly caused Tobit's blindness and the fish that almost devoured and killed Tobias are reminiscent of a corrupted creation indicated in the discussed apocalyptic texts. As such, the misfortunes that Tobit suffers are not the direct consequence of his iniquity as he earlier claimed; his afflictions are not due to retribution. Rather, he and the other righteous actors in the story are subject to the whims of a creation that holds no respect for its established boundaries. In other words, the problematic elements of creation help explain Tobit's problems, the resolution of which is left in God's hands completely.

Kiel has done a thorough and laudable job of relating the early apocalyptic texts of Israel to the book of Tobit, imagining them to be active conversation partners in this well-structured study. And yet, despite the acknowledgment that the theology behind the simple tale of Tobit is complex, one gains the impression that Kiel overestimates the influence of apocalyptic thought on Tobit's theological perspectives, or that this tradition alone makes matters in Tobit multifaceted. Might it not be that Tobit engaged other traditions in Judaism as seriously as it did early Jewish apocalypticism? From Kiel's vantage point, one wonders how to explain the narrative's oft-repeated and insistent remarks on the practice of righteousness and almsgiving (cf. Tob 4:6–7; 12:8–9; 14:9). Should this be dismissed as an ironic part of Tobit's theological misreading of his situation? Could it be that the practice of righteousness and almsgiving is not correlated with straightforward retribution but with cooperation with God's mysterious purposes? As the story begins (cf. 3:16–17), it is revealed that the outcome is determined and it does not rest on human decisions or actions because God's intentions are already set; God is indeed in control (cf. 13:2). What becomes obvious in the story is that righteous characters such as Tobias have to cooperate in God's plan, even in affliction, by submitting to his divine will as expressed in the Book of Moses, in Tobit's instructions, and the words of the angel. Their loyalty and obedience to the law in its various expressions in the story manifest their submission to God's will. By practicing righteousness and mercy, qualities that pertain to God, they simply allow God's purposes to prevail.

Indeed, the view of retribution in Tobit is a complex one, and this study has contributed much to direct the attention of scholars to the issues that are often overlooked or swept aside in the scholarly treatments of Tobit. Kiel's interpretation of Tobit in terms of the theology embodied in early Jewish apocalyptic texts is insightful and refreshing. Understandably, since the focus of his monograph is retribution, certain concerns or issues in the narrative such as, e.g., the role of wisdom lie outside the purview of the study. Nonetheless, Kiel's unwavering and lucid attention to the apocalyptic aspects detectable in the Book of Tobit makes for a successful questioning of the Deuteronomic/Deuteronomistic labeling of the book's view of retribution. Without a doubt, Kiel has shown that the Book of Tobit truly earns a place at the table as a serious theological voice in the conversation on the drama of good and evil in Second Temple Judaism. For this, the author is to be congratulated.

Francis M. Macatangay, University of St. Thomas School of Theology