- Both names, Tobit and Tobias (sometimes written Tobiah), mean “Yahweh is my good.” Tobit was the son of Tobiel, which also means “Yahweh is my good.” He was a native of Thisbe in Naphtali. Their land allotment lay NW of the Sea of Galilee. After the division of David’s kingdom, Naphtali was one of the northern tribes.
- Tobit lamented the split, but that concern paled in contrast to his sadness over the people’s refusal to worship in the temple in Jerusalem. Jeroboam, the king of the northern kingdom, had set up “golden calves” at Dan (in the north) and Bethel (in the south) to make it easier for northern citizens not to have to go to Jerusalem. Most were taking full advantage of that. Tobit, however, continued to make the trek to Jerusalem to worship. He claimed he was the only one who did so. He obviously felt very isolated from his countrymen, though occasionally he took his wife and relatives with him.
- Tobit offered sacrifices and gave alms to the temple, the priests, and the poor. When it was time for him to marry, he took a wife from his tribe. His wife’s name was Hannah, which means “Grace.” According to the story, Tobit was among those who were exiled to Nineveh during the reign of Shalmaneser (727-722 BCE). Most scholars, however, think the deportation of Naphtali occurred under Tiglath-pileser (745-727 BCE). Tobit was a “young man” when this happened. He continued to be an observant Jew while in exile, refusing to eat Gentile food.
- As an observant Jew, he followed not only the spirit but also the letter of the law, even in Nineveh. Because he was faithful to the covenant, he was blessed by God. He was in good standing with Shalmaneser and worked in his court. It seems that his position might have been “buyer of provisions.” This allowed him to travel frequently to Media, where he had family.
- His was an important position in Shalmaneser’s court. In gratitude for his services, Shalmaneser gave him ten talents of silver. Scholars argue over the value of this amount, but it might have been $10,000-$20,000, surely a tidy sum in antiquity. On one of his trips to Media, he managed to give this money to his cousins for safekeeping.
- In addition to his work in the court, Tobit gave alms to poor people in Nineveh and made sure that every dead Jew had a proper burial. Ironically, it would be those good deeds that would get him into trouble. When Sennacherib took over in 705 BCE, he instituted a new policy that the bodies of dead Jews should be left to rot as a message for others. Undaunted, Tobit defied this law and carried off the bodies to bury them. For a Jew to remain unburied and have his body rot in the open or eaten by animals was the ultimate degradation.
- Burying bodies is the main “good work” of the book of Tobit. After the new king came to power, such actions became very risky. Tobit was essentially risking his life each time he did it. It was not long before his neighbors turned him in. When the authorities heard what Tobit was doing, they confiscated all of his possessions and would have killed him if he had not vanished, taking his wife and son with him.
He decided to become a mining engineer, studying at the Royal Polytechnic University of Turin, so he could “serve Christ better among the miners," as he told a friend. Although he considered his studies his first duty, they did not keep him from social and political activism. In 1919, he joined the Catholic Student Foundation and the organization known as Catholic Action. He became a very active member of the People’s Party, which promoted the Catholic Church’s social teaching based on the principles of Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical letter, Rerum Novarum.