Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Mining the Bible

The Book of Tobit isn't the most well-known book of the Bible. For one thing, it's very short; for another, it's not in all Bibles. Catholics refer to it as "deuterocanonical," indicating that it is not in the current Hebrew Bible, but regard it as canon; to Protestants it is "apocryphal," hence non-canonical.

The events Tobit describes are placed in the 8th century BC, but it was probably written in the 3rd or 2nd century, or at any rate sometime after the return from the exile. It was written in Aramaic, but most modern editions are based on one of several ancient Greek versions. The Aramaic and Hebrew versions were thought lost until fragments were found in Cave IV at Qumran. St. Jerome claimed to have based his version for the Latin Vulgate on an Aramaic copy.

The book is, according to most scholars, a kind of religious fairy tale:

Tobit is a righteous Israelite living in Nineveh after being deported by Shalmaneser, the king of Assyria who conquered the northern kingdom. He adheres to the Mosaic law, practices charity, and is especially solicitous regarding the burial of the dead. This gets him in trouble with Sennacherib, Shalmaneser's successor, forcing him to flee for his life. (There are some historical errors here, but I'm presenting the story as-is.) After Sennacherib's assassination, Tobit's nephew Ahiqar (a Near Eastern folk hero) pulls some strings to allow for his return. He takes up his dead-burying activities again, prompting the derision of his neighbors. After burying a man strangled in the marketplace, he sleeps in the open, and birds poop in his eyes. This causes cataracts and, eventually, blindness. He prays for death.

Meanwhile, a young Israelite woman named Sarah, who lives in Ecbatana in Media (in modern-day Iran), is experiencing troubles of her own. She's gotten married seven times, but every time, just as she was preparing to go to bed with her new husband, the demon Asmodeus (from the Persian aeshma daeva, demon of wrath) appeared and killed the groom to prevent their consummating their union. Her maid accuses her of having strangled them all. She prays for death.

Both prayers are heard by God, who sends the angel Raphael to make things right.

Tobit sends his son Tobias to Media to retrieve a large sum of money he deposited there many years ago. Tobias enlists the service of a young man (Raphael in mortal disguise) who claims to know the roads. While en route, a fish tries to eat Tobiah's foot as he's bathing in the Tigris River. He catches the fish, and Raphael advises him to keep the liver, the heart, and the gall. The first two repel demons when roasted, and the third is a cure for cataracts.

They reach Sarah's house. Tobiah marries Sarah and they go to the bridal chamber. He places the liver and heart on embers prepared for incense. Asmodeus is driven by the smoke into Upper Egypt, where he is bound by Raphael. Tobiah and Sarah rise to say a prayer together. It's a prayer of thanksgiving that goes from the cosmic to the intimate, dwelling on the heavens and the earth, Adam and Eve, sexual complementarity, mutual support, sincere love, and the hope of growing old together.

Sarah says, "Amen," and they get in bed together. Sarah's father, who had ordered a grave to be dug in the night, has it filled in when he discovers the happy outcome. The money is retrieved and the couple goes to Nineveh. Tobiah applies the gall to his father's eyes and is able to peel the cataracts off his eyeballs. The angel then reveals his true identity:
I am Raphael, one of the seven holy angels who present the prayers of the saints and enter into the presence of the glory of the Holy One.
He also gives some insight into the nature of his supposed corporeality:
All these days I merely appeared to you and did not eat or drink, but you were seeing a vision.
Years later, from his deathbed, Tobit admonishes his son to return to Ecbatana, for the prophet has preached the destruction of Nineveh. So Tobiah and Sarah and their family return to Media, where they hear about the fall of Nineveh and praise God.

All in all, it's a strange, beautiful tale full of bizarre happenings and vivid details that passes freely and unapologetically from the scatological, the visceral, and the sexual to the angelic and the divine. It's entertaining – it could almost be the basis for a story in the Arabian Nights – at the same time as being edifying and thought-provoking. More than anything, viewed purely as a story, it's a wonderful mine for writers.

John O'Neill of Black Gate fame recently mentioned his surprise that fantasy authors don't do more with Biblical material:
When I was editing fiction for Black Gate, I was always a little surprised at how many writers were eager to tap the dead religions of Ancient Greece, Rome and Scandinavia, and how few seemed interested in the rich storytelling of the Bible. Maybe it was an overabundance of respect — or, more likely, a lack of real familiarity with the source material.
I suspect that, culturally speaking, it's just too close, for believers as well as non-believers. There's a sense of ownership. We know the Bible, or so we think. It's old hat.

The truth is, the Bible has a lot of weird, sexy, and violent parts that don't come up in Sunday school. The Old Testament is a Bronze-Age epic of love and revenge and worship and war, rich in historical detail and local color, with poetic images that are some of the most beautiful in any language. It's a bridge from the cosmic to the historical, establishing a supernatural link and parallel between the Temple liturgy and the creation of the universe.

Even the New Testament has more strangeness to mine than most people suspect. Think, for instance, of the exorcism of the Gerasene demoniac, in which Jesus casts the demon called Legion ("for we are many") out of a tomb-dwelling demoniac, but, at its request, allows it to enter a herd of swine, which promptly drown themselves in the sea. That story alone prompts countless questions about the nature of the world of spirits; it makes you feel like you're catching just a glimpse into a strange and frightening plane with its own secret laws.

One fantasy author who did do a lot with Biblical material is Madeleine L'Engle. I read her Time Quartet many times when I was a pre-teen. My favorite was Many Waters, in which the "normal" Murray twins Dennys and Sandy are accidentally time-warped into the days leading up to the Deluge, where they meet the patriarchs, fall in love with a beautiful young woman, and come into contact with nephilim, seraphim, virtual unicorns, and tiny wooly mammoths. When I was in the fourth grade I began a project of reading the King James Version of the Bible, and Many Waters went hand-in-hand with the strange things I was encountering there. I even dressed as Japheth for Book Day in the fifth grade.

I happen to do a lot with Biblical material myself. The world of Antellus represents a blend of Greek and Semitic mythology. Like L'Engle, I'm especially drawn to the first part of Genesis, from the creation accounts (there's two of them, you know) down to the Tower of Babel. Robert Alter's Genesis: Translation and Commentary (W. W. Norton) is an excellent non-religious translation. I'm also fascinated by the mythologies of other Semitic peoples, especially the Arabian/Islamic jinn, on which I base my nephelim, as well as some of the other ancient Jewish traditions. But I have a special affection for Tobit, which is one reason I chose my pen name as I did.

So, go read your Bible. If you don't have one, get one. I'm sure you can find someone more than willing to give you a nice one for free, even if you tell them that you just want to mine it for material. It just might not have the deuterocanonical books in it...

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