Edna, Sarah and Anna: The Women of the Book of Tobit

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Secretum Meum Mihi Press

Edna, Sarah and Anna: The Women of the Book of Tobit

by Kristen West McGuire

Tobit 7:13-17

Then he called his daughter Sarah, and taking her by the hand he gave her to Tobias to be his wife, saying, “Here she is; take her according to the law of Moses, and take her with you to your father.” And he blessed them. 14 Next he called his wife Edna, and took a scroll and wrote out the contract; and they set their seals to it. 15 Then they began to eat.

16 And Raguel called his wife Edna and said to her, “Sister, make up the other room, and take her into it.” 17 so she did as he said, and took her there; and the girl* began to weep. But the mother comforted her daughter in her tears, and said to her, 18 “Be brave, my child; the Lord of heaven and earth grant you joy* in place of this sorrow of yours. Be brave, my daughter.”

Tobit 11:9-15

Then Anna ran to meet them, and embraced her son, and said to him, “I have seen you, my child; now I am ready to die.” And they both wept. 10 Tobit started toward the door, and stumbled. But his son ran to him 11 and took hold of his father, and he sprinkled the gall upon his father’s eyes, saying, “Be of good cheer, father.” 12 And when his eyes began to smart he rubbed them, 13 and the white films scaled off from the corners of his eyes. 14 Then he saw his son and embraced him, and he wept and said, “Blessed art thou, O God, and blessed is thy name for ever, and blessed are all thy holy angels. 15 For thou hast afflicted me, but thou hast had mercy upon me; here I see my son Tobias!” And his son went in rejoicing, and he reported to his father the great things that had happened to him in Media.”

(Revised Standard Version)

Context: The book of Tobit is a morality tale intended to help the faithful answer the question, “Why do the just suffer?” Tobit honors the traditional Mosaic law, even as an exile in Ninevah. Yet, he becomes blind and loses everything although remaining ritually pure. Despondent, he even accuses his wife Anna of stealing, and asks God for death and deliverance from misfortune.

Similarly suicidal, Sarah’s SEVEN husbands died on sequential honeymoons. (Banish your tabloid suspicions– the demon did it!) Sarah and her mother don’t cry from guilt, but because they expect the young stranger asking for her hand to suffer a similar fate. (Well, maybe the gossipy maids hurt, too.)

Tobias, son of Tobit, is the stranger sent to Sarah. He is accompanied by the angel Raphael and the entrails of a “magic fish,” which can cast out demons. Tobit conquers the demon, wins the maiden’s love and washes the blindness from his father’s eyes. (Any resemblance to messianic imagery is entirely intended.)

The story also reflects two common myths of the ancient world, the “grateful dead,” in which the deceased sends blessings upon his burial attendant, and the “dangerous bride,” which may yet be extant. (Some men are still scared to get hitched, so I hear.)

Translation: Probably written around 200 B.C.E., the oral tradition was common enough that Jesus probably heard it retold over a holiday meal more than once. Written versions have been recovered in Greek, including a copy among the Dead Sea Scrolls. There are also scraps of it found in both Aramaic and Hebrew.

It’s an engaging story, and the details included would have moved its hearers to both tears and laughter. They needed encouragement to follow the Lord’s precepts in a land hostile to their values. So do we!

Vocabulary:

endogamy: This is the technical term for the practice of requiring persons to marry within their social and/or religious class. Rather than a limit on a maiden’s freedom, it was seen as a protection for both her and the interests of the larger clan. The story of Tobit is an apologetic on endogamy, which was seen as key to the survival of the Jewish identity in the diaspora.

gall: This refers to the contents of the gallbladder, which would have had quite the pungent aroma.

Do your tears matter? The women of the book of Tobit appear to have an overabundance of them. As misfortunes and humiliations mount, the women speak fewer and fewer words, and their tears of sorrow dominate the story. (In fact, their tears were evidence of their sanity, compared to the self-righteous advice and observations they were offered by their community!) Still, very few words are spoken, and their role in the drama seems so passive.

Or is it?

Anna, the wife of Tobit, was practical enough to get a job to support the family while Tobit was moaning about his troubles. He accuses her of stealing, and also discounts her tears when he sends their only son out to recover their lost treasure. Tobit was a straight arrow on the ritual purity front, but he wasn’t exactly a tender spouse.

Edna weeps over Tobit’s story of his father, and weeps with her daughter, and probably wept as her husband pre-emptively dug an eighth grave. Yet, the few words she says are full of the promises of God: “Be brave!” In a difficult situation, sometimes the most precious gift is a stable confidence in God’s deliverance and empathetic tears.

The fathers may have done a good job preserving the doctrines of the faith in this family, but the mothers made God real to their lucky children, even and especially through their tears.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What makes you cry? Are there different shades to tears? How do your closest friends and family react to tears? Would you change anything about the tears in your life?
  2. Men and women react to stress very differently. Men tend to either pick fights or bottle it up, while women are more likely to “tend and befriend.” There are actually hormonal reasons for these differences. How does this affect the power of faith to make a difference in times of crisis?
  3. Are you more like Anna or Edna? Why? Which one do you admire most?

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