Votes : 0

Fraternity in the Old Testament

Saverio Corradino, SJ - La Civiltà Cattolica - Thu, Feb 27th 2020

In the development of Old Testament ideas, the theme of fraternity has a rather consistent development, in which the implications of being members of the same family must be taken into account, even when the texts do not always employ the terms sister or brother.

It would seem that the whole path of biblical revelation stretches out between two poles: it begins with Adam, the point of origin for a humanity bound by a communion of blood because it descends “from one man” (Acts 17:26; cf. Gen 1-2), and it ends in Jesus Christ, “the firstborn within a large family” (Rom 8:29), and therefore the only place of communion in which the original kinship between people has absolute fulfillment. This fraternity of all people in the Lord derives from the relationship of sonship that Jesus has with the Father, and indicates our new way of relating to God in Jesus Christ, that is, as children of the Father

However, in the New Testament the nature of human existence raises a constitutive problem that lays bare the ambiguous way in which we are brothers and sisters. We are all children of Adam, the only progenitor of the first creation, and also children of God, because we are redeemed in Christ. One could say we are originally marked by a double paternity, from which follows a double title of fraternity, no less than an inner rupture. In reality, the paternity of God does not overlap with that of Adam, but goes back to God through Adam, “the son of God” (Luke 3:38).

The same is true of fraternity. It now passes through the divine and human person of the Lord Jesus, and the communion of blood with him strengthens the divine fraternity of humankind. Already the history of the Old Testament enriched it with depth and meaning through subsequent alliances with Abraham, Moses, David and Aaron, which seemed to narrow it down and make it more special. The covenant with God – the new as well as the old – is a privileged school of fraternity.

Yet we witness an existential rupture. This is due to sin and not to the original human condition, and is completely healed only with the death of the old humanity, born of Adam’s sin, and by fraternity in Christ who died and rose again (cf. Rom 5:12-19). In the Father’s plan, no one is excluded from that fraternity: it is the Church, a communion of charity.

In relation to this theme, two books of the Old Testament occupy a privileged place, as is demonstrated by the fact that the term “brother” appears there with exceptional frequency: the Book of Genesis and the Book of Tobit.

The Book of Genesis

The first book of the Bible reveals that the laceration of human conscience goes back to the origins. In the silence of the mystery, the human person, the last among creatures, was called to be the image and likeness of God (Gen 1:26-27); but at the same time was subject to a trial that precisely tested the impulse to “be like God” (3:5). Human failure is immediately incorporated into the theme of fraternity: Cain kills Abel (4:1-8). The typical crime, in which the dominion of sin in human existence is manifested, is very realistically a case of jealousy toward one’s own kin: hatred goes as far as the violent erasure of the other.

Rivalry appears again among brothers in the relationship between Esau and Jacob (25:29-34; 27:1-42). Fraternal homicidal intentions also appear in the story of Joseph (37; 39-50); but there, in the protagonist’s soul, the will to kill is turned upside down from within, and the image of the brother becomes that of the one who gives life: the one who saves others is a brother; he provides them with nourishment and prompts the guilty to convert.

Genesis can be read almost entirely under the theological category of “fraternity”: it makes us understand what kinship is.[1] The appellation of “brother” seems to have more theological importance here than that of “father” or “mother,” which refer to voices and situations that are continually spoken of, raising their meaning, sublimating their consequences (cf. the paternity of Adam, Noah, Abraham and Israel).

In the Book of Genesis, in fact, father and mother are mentioned before brothers (2:24). But immediately afterward the term “brother” appears, and it comes back and is repeated, seven consecutive times (4:2-11) in a few lines. According to this book, human history begins in terms of an original fraternity. But the brotherhood is continually broken or threatened: a group of rival sibling pairs, an uninterrupted tension, a deadly contrast within that common origin from the same womb.

In the narrative there is no lack of a positive itinerary, but it is less important: Abraham wants to avoid contrasts with Lot (13:8); Jacob tries, with success, to reconcile himself with Esau (33:4); Joseph forgives his brothers (45:1-5). Genesis ends by stating that reconciliation is possible, but it is a heroic, unlikely possibility, based on a masterful display of generosity and wisdom that is hard to believe (50:15-21). 

Tobit: the book of the diaspora

The other text is the Book of Tobit, a deuterocanonical book that only came to us in the Greek version, with a complex textual tradition. We have a short form, from the uncial codices Codex Vaticanus (B) and Codex Alexandrinus (A), and the great mass of the minuscule manuscripts; and a long form, represented only by the Codex Sinaiticus (S), but confirmed by some Aramaic fragments and a Hebrew one found in Qumran, as well as by the ancient Latin version (the Latin Vetus). As with other deuterocanonical books, here the Vulgate does its own thing. It is quite possible to reconstruct the original Greek version, and remotely the Semitic one, focusing mainly on the text of Sinaiticus, which is theologically more intact, but also using the other codices when needed (the Sinaiticus manuscript has a couple of gaps), or when they offer useful variants.

In the whole arc of the biblical narrative, the Book of Tobit stands at the opposite end to Genesis: at the very bottom, at the extreme pole, where the experience initiated in Genesis seems to have reached a critical point of maturity. The book is written for God’s people in diaspora, and therefore also for a diaspora Christianity, like the one in which we live today. The protagonists are the sons of Israel of the tribe of Naphtali, one of the 10 “lost tribes,” the tribes of the Northern Kingdom deported by the Assyrians in 721 and dispersed forever throughout Assyrian territory. They are therefore marginal Jews, to whom the Bible does not pay particular attention: the tribes of the sons of the servants (Gen 35:25-26), those of the Galilee of the pagans, where the Lord lived and preached.[2] Naphtali is one of the four sons of the servants, to whom the story of Joseph attributed a prominent part in the hatred of this brother (Gen 37:2).

The theme of “brother” in the Book of Tobit does not have the dramatic tension it had in Genesis. The term is used frequently, but always in a positive way; it never refers to a constitutive rivalry between members of the same human group. On the contrary, it affirms a theologically relevant thesis, that is, the “children of the servants” are also kin, in their own right, and so they do not remain outside the vocation of Israel. More precisely, the lost tribes are not lost at all, but have the task of expressing the vocation of the entire people of God who, as such, are called to the diaspora.

The Book of Tobit is set in the diaspora of the Assyrian period; but this had not yet ended when the book was written (14:6-7), and Tobit’s final admonitions to his son Tobias(14:3-7:9-10) concern Nineveh and the land of deportation, while Jerusalem, high on that horizon, remains only the object of prophetic vision (13:9-17).

The speech is very relevant for Israel in the final biblical times and for Christians of all times. Those persons of God who close themselves off by customs and “clerical” connections, without engaging in the world, are failing in their vocation, no less than those who seek contact with the world in order to lose themselves in it, or who suffer contact with the world in order to be conquered and assimilated by it. In fact, most people let themselves be assimilated, and the “tribes” really are “lost.”

Enclosure in the ghetto, or passivity in the hands of the colonizers: these two false forms of living fraternity are in contrast only on the surface, but agree in depth; both say that the vocation to be witnesses among the pagans, with a relationship of equality or more often of inferiority, is too difficult, and it is lawful, or even necessary, to disengage from it. This is the thesis that the book explicitly intends to deny, with a concatenation whose central point is the original condition of kinship between those who really belong to the People of God.

The apparent helplessness of God is a very hard test for those who are faithful to Him. In concrete terms, the trial is expressed as a condition of poverty: the man of God has lost everything, even – one would say – God’s support (2:14). However, he does not tire; he does not back down because he understands that the proof is mysteriously connected with what he knows about his own unreliability as a man of God (3:1-6), and therefore the only answer is faith. But the latter – this is the novelty of the book – is expressed in a context of trials with an invincible impulse of fraternity.

The climax of the story comes when two Israelites, united by a bond of blood, and therefore by kinship, who remained faithful to God and to their condition as brother and sister during a painful and humiliating trial, address to the Lord the invocation of the poor; and although they know nothing of each other, they address it together, at the same time, united before God in trial and in prayer (3:7-17), and later in the salvation that reaches them through a “brother.”

The encounter between the old man Tobit and Sarah, two characters who seem so distant and different from each other, takes place in prayer, but is rooted in that bond of blood, no one knows how remote, which unites them in kinship. This is an invisible encounter, unconscious, but absolutely real, as evidenced by its progressive transformation into a concrete encounter. Through Sarah, Tobit will see – he who is now blind – the descendants of his son, as a guarantee of a future stretching toward the new Jerusalem (13:9-17; 14:6-7), where he will set foot again, taking possession, forever.

The brother, another ‘me’

It may seem strange, after a first reading, to look for the theme of the brother/sister (in Greek adelphic, adelphy) in a text that seems to ignore situations of fraternity in the strict sense. In fact, at that time the term “fraternity” – for its theological significance no less than its current use in Semitic languages – had a very wide range of meanings. It indicated – as also happens in the New Testament – people bound by a blood bond, close or even just far away.[3] Much more often it designated co-religionists, because it presumed a common descent from Abraham or one of Jacob’s sons, and even more so because from the Law is born a communion that goes beyond the bounds of blood.[4]

In Greek, and already similarly in Hebrew, the term adelph?, “sister,” has a further use: it indicates the bride.[5] The three interpersonal relationships of consanguinity or shared religion or bride/husband overlap in the Book of Tobit, defining for different reasons an absolutely unique communion with God and between people.

In Genesis there is something similar. This specific physical bond means that whoever is the son of my father and my mother is another “me.” This also has value for us, even if  we have a very different sensitivity. After all, it is entirely coincidental that the attributes that make my brother different from me belong to him and not to me, and vice versa that my attributes belong to me and not to him. In the Book of Tobit, we go back to the root of this situation: adelphos, adelph?, is the person in whom I simply recognize myself, for one reason or another: no boasting over the other, no claim to superiority: only the certainty of an original communion with the other. 

The son: a brother

There are, among these postponements, some particularly expressive moments. The angel Raphael says to Tobias, about Sarah: “I pledge my word she will give you children who will be like brothers to you” (6:18). Having a brother is more than having a son; it is a more meaningful bond, a greater reason for exultation. The son is myself for half; for another half is the spouse, that is a different one, even if a different one in whom I identify myself (and therefore adelph? indicates the bride). But the brother is just me, starting from an accidentally different original condition.

Further on (7:12), adelphos, “the bridegroom,” is placed in strict symmetry with the two uses of adelph?, “the bride.” Singular affirmation of parity between bridegroom and bride – also expressed through the dialectical alternation of adelphos, adelph?, adelphos – in a book where it is thought that the man should be the savior of his woman,[6] unless, due to his spiritual insufficiency, he is not the cause of the bride’s death, which is what happens to the first seven husbands of Sarah (6:14).

For Tobit, even the Jews who adapt to the idolatrous cult remain brothers (adelphoi) (1:5.10). He continues to treat them as such (1:16.17; 2:2), despite his displeasure at their infidelity. In reality, God himself is seeking them through his own means: he intends to return them to their original condition as brothers,  a status which is never set aside, as can be seen from the long second series of uses of the term adelphoi.

Finally, it can be noted that Raphael’s narrative function (his name means “God heals”) is, yes, to affirm a theological thesis, that is, that God heals and saves his poor when they turn to him from the bottom of the ordeal, but it also references the other thesis, that being brothers is the part of an angel. The insistent term of address adelphos, by which others address Raphael, indicates that he who knows how to be a brother to the end – like Raphael to everyone – is no less than an angel.

Adelphos – from copulative a-, and delphys, matrix, womb – means that the physical origin is the same, but also indicates a transcendent character, someone who comes from God. This is what the New Testament states about Jesus: his destiny is  “to be the firstborn within a large family” (cf. Rom 8:29, with all the context). To be truly a brother is an identity that a person can receive and cultivate only as a gift from God: it is a condition that is beyond the human being. It is the role of an angel, as the Book of Tobit has it, or rather the role of the Son of God, as the New Testament reveals.


The development of the theme extends well beyond the possibilities of a lexical comparison. Everything seems to be suspended from a bond of fraternity in this account, which is divided between the anguish over the continuous and countless defections of the Israelites, the brothers (1:4-6.10), and the undisputed primacy of the blood bond, no matter how remote, because of its spiritual value. “For we are the descendants of the prophets,” Tobit says to his son (4:12) in the act of recommending that he marry “from among the descendants of your ancestors.”

A condition for salvation is to belong to God’s people. A real belonging, and not purely physical, as is specified shortly after (5:14). But an actual kinship, even a very distant one, in the New Testament is one that binds all human beings to the Messiah of Israel, incorporated in him in his Spirit, the indiscernible kinship that descends from the Incarnation of the Word.

In the book there are many expressions of physical fraternity not expressed by the term “brother.” When Tobias, during the journey, learns from the angel what Sarah’s drama is (6:11-18), it is said that “he loved her very much” (6:18). Tobias loves her suddenly, just as one loves a close relative whose existence was unknown and who had never been seen and who is dear to us before we even meet. Tobias’s love for Sarah has nothing romantic about it, but it is a deeply human movement, born of a spiritual and physical inheritance: the blessing that comes to him from his father (5:17) and from God through Abraham and Israel, and that is poured out in blood. It is a natural and divine motion together, a presentiment of the Incarnation.

It has been seen that the kinship of Tobias and Sarah in trial and prayer prolongs their bond of blood, but is preordained in secret by God; and that it corresponds, most efficaciously, to God’s solidarity with the poor. Solidarity moves along the line of fraternity; it remains akin to it, and it dilates it. Tobit is the book of unbroken solidarity between brothers and sisters, and of God toward those who are truly brothers and sisters. This solidarity is never silence or complicity or human interest; it passes through blood ties, but it presupposes the condition of the poor and affirms God’s solidarity with his own. Everything is ready so that in the New Testament the people of God may be, by vocation, the whole of humanity, and so that the physical bond that the Messiah of Israel has with humanity may become the channel through which that solidarity of God which is salvation reaches us.

We note, meanwhile, that this link between prayer and action, situated at the nodal points,[7] must be considered among the constants of the Book of Tobit. In it, but also in the books of Esther and Judith – which are the last narrative texts of the Old Testament – the action is all decided and concluded and already brought to completion by the prayer that preceded it. The concrete resolution can then unfold at a festive pace, since every drama between people is a drama between God and people, and the “poor” have the authority to resolve it: the heartfelt invocation of the brothers and sisters evokes God’s solidarity.

 Fraternity and solidarity

Tobit is the book of those who, knowing each other or not, are truly related by bonds of kinship; therefore, from the first verse onward it is the book of solidarity; and thus it implicitly widens beyond the ethnic limits of Israel. Let us try to spell it out, starting from the first pages of the text.

It begins with a genealogy (1:1), proposed as the supreme profession of physical solidarity and, for the people of the Bible, the principle of all fraternity. The continuity of blood makes visible the common vocation, which is transmitted from one ancestor to another and brought to completion with the succession of generations.

Then there are those who bear the responsibility for others, because, although not without their own faults, they are in solidarity with their guilty brethren, and consequently are deported and reduced to poverty (1:2). This is the burden of affliction that accompanies communion of life with sinners: but this communion of life belongs to the vocation and destiny of God’s people. The just person does not set his or her innocence, true or presumed, against the faults of others, but feels his or her own faults as an evil concerning all, and the faults of all as his or her own (3:3-6).

This solidarity with the fraternity is expressed in words (the candid exultation of the narrative ego in the first chapter) and in positive acts of participation and sharing (1:3). There is more: for the people of God, the opposition between the just and the unjust only leads to the righteous being charged with all the obligations rejected or neglected by the one who no longer knows how to be righteous, and who nevertheless remains a brother or sister in the strict sense.[8]

This solidarity brings the righteous into the cycle of generations and parental bonds, and thus into the exercise of the wider fraternity. But it does not take that person away from loneliness. As had already been said of Job, so for Tobit the bride of youth, Anna (1:9), has the task of making visible and sharpening the loneliness of the just (2:14). The latter is lived in a context of solidarity, and the two terms act on each other, and intensify each other, in a mysterious and dramatic way.

The only glimmer of light comes from opening up to the future – the son (1:9) – and not from an impossible closure on the past. The past is a noble inheritance; it embraces the innumerable solidarity aroused by God in Israel, but it presents itself to Tobit only as a spiritual burden of faults to be atoned for. For him the act of becoming part of history is summed up in an experience of deportation (1:10), and constitutes, from the beginning to the end of the story, and ideally of the entire biblical text, the sanctity of an uprooted person. This shows how useless is a rootedness based on biological and cultural continuity, but not of spiritual belonging, in which what is important is not what God proposes at every new age, at every turn of life, but what is acquired by a sum of more or less positive precedents. Belonging to a story of deportees means for Tobit to show solidarity with sinners, even without having shared their sin (1:10): this is the condition to save them. Tobit thus becomes a figure who has before him an unlimited and transcendent future: he is an unknowing image of Jesus Christ, like every person who is cordially faithful to the voice of God.

In such a tragic experience of fraternity, there is no lack of moments of relaxation, of success (1:12-15). Everything lies in knowing how to live them as temporary, without sacrificing anything essential in an attempt to stabilize them, to make them durable and permanent. The solidarity in which fraternity is extended reaches all possible interlocutors, all the moments of truth that people, whatever their past, find themselves living. And it is solidarity received (1:13. 21-22), no less than solidarity offered to others (1:16-18). Thus that solidarity which is participation in history (1:15-22) enlivens new situations, new people.

Meanwhile, we see the emblematic condition of the righteous person, who is alive and buries the dead. A person dies of sin, but the righteous do not remain unscathed by that death, the weight – material, physical, spiritual – of those deaths is on them, just as the grave digger carries the load of the corpses to be buried. This, in fact, is the solidarity that is mainly mentioned in the Book of Tobit.

And then the just is alive, but with a life that for now is fragile, exposed to risks and threats (1:19-20), devoid of splendor. His only splendor is solidarity. Even the rigorous and Pharisaic-style observance, which is so recommended in this book (as in Judith and Esther), and which indicates belonging to God’s people, is solidarity with sinners: Israel is in exile because of its sin.

It should also be noted that, despite the harshness of existence described in the first three chapters, a festive joyfulness runs through the whole book, which opens with the exultant memory of the celebrations at the Temple (1:6), begins narratively with the recomposition of the family on the day of Pentecost, after the return of Tobias (2:1-2), has the decisive moment in a banquet for the guest, which turns into a wedding feast (7:9-14; 8:19-21; 9:6), and ends brightly with a sequence of praise and blessings (12–13). It is precisely appropriate tithe feast to express the communion of faith and history that binds the people of God, and therefore to ask that others – especially those who have no way of celebrating – also share in the common joy (1:7-8; 2:2-3).

Tobit’s book is organized narratively as a sequence of paintings. The first concludes by ideally linking Tobit’s story to the official story. Achikar, for a narrator of the ancient East, is an important character and an authoritative master of wisdom (1:21-22).

There is a solidarity that the righteous are unable to seek: God Himself launches it through the events of which the life of the righteous is woven, and of which they become outwardly the support or the official frame. The existence of the just is in no way made up of such appearances, but they do help to make sense of it, to place it in an emblematic context of solidarity sui generis. So the suggestion comes that the life of Tobit, Achikar’s close relative, is a feat of heroic wisdom.

From this first introductory picture there is a succession of useful hooks for the development of the story (1:14-17b.19.22a); then a profile of the protagonist that anticipates the situations to come; and finally a vast scene, open far and wide for thousands of miles, where the omnipotence of God’s designs is explained, the supreme solidarity that envelops the story of the righteous throughout the book.

Here, then, is a deuterocanonical book that strongly projects Old Testament piety in the direction of the New Testament. This is not the only case: something similar happens in other deuterocanonical books, such as the Wisdom of Solomon and the Book of Judith. This is the probable reason why they were excluded from the Jewish canon.

The Book of Tobit is the fruit of a long journey forward, toward that final goal of Old Testament salvation which is the humanity of the Son of God. Incorporated into him, we become brothers and sisters in a full and transcendent sense, and mysteriously in solidarity with the vocation and history of any human being.

DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 4, no. 02 art. 4, 0220: 10.32009/22072446.0220.4

[1].    Cf. L. Alonso Schökel, Dov’è il tuo fratello? Pagine di fraternità nel libro della Genesi, Brescia, Paideia, 1987.

[2].    Cf. the quotation from Isa 8:23-9:1 in Matt 4:13-16: Galilee is the place where Jesus carried out much of his ministry, in the territory that had belonged to the tribes of Naphtali and Zebulon.

[3].    See Tob 1:14.21; 2:10; 3:15; 4:12; 6:18 (cod. S); 7:1 (S).2 (S).7 (S).10 (S).12; 10:13.

[4].    See Tob 1:3.5 (cod. S).10.16; 2:2.3 (S); 4:132; 5:5 (S).6.9 (S).10 (S).11 (S). (cod. B and A).142 (S).172 (S); 6:7. 11,132 (S).14.16; 7.12 (S).3.4.6 (S).9.11 (S); 9.2; 10.6 (S); 11.2 (B and A).18 (B and A); 14.4 (B and A).7 (B and A).

[5].    This especially in the Codex Sinaiticus: Cf. Tob 5:22; 6:19; 7:9,122; 8:21; 10:6.13. For other codices, see 7.15; 8.4.7.

[6].    Cf. Tob 6:18. Raphael turns to Tobias: “You will save her.”

[7].    See Tob 3-4; 8.5-7.15-17;13.

[8].    Cf. Tob 1:4-8: Tobit belongs to the same tribe of Naphtali, the ancestor who had abandoned the tribe of David and had left Jerusalem to offer sacrifices to the sacred calf of Jeroboam at Dan.

share :
tags icon tags :
comments icon Without comments


write comment
Please enter the letters as they are shown in the image above.