The book of Tobit: The adventures of a boy and his dog.

And an angel.

And a fish.

1. Introduction

Set in Nineveh and Media after the fall of the Northern Kingdom, the Book of Tobit was likely composed much later, during the late third or early second century before the common era. It tells a fanciful tale while also using that tale as a means of sharing the ideas of the wisdom books: namely, that rather than relying upon the covenant, the righteous person uses wisdom to achieve a good life. There is a strong emphasis in this work on obeying one's family, reverencing the dead and the virtues of fasting and alms-giving. Like other Hellenistic Jewish literature, the characters of Tobit lack moral ambiguity: these are righteous people.


"Where are your righteous acts?"

Tobit is a righteous man. In a time of persecution, he was unafraid to bury the dead. In a time of false worship, he alone went to Jerusalem to worship God while his relations went "to the calf of Jeroboam" (1:5). Fleeing Media, he left much wealth in the control of his kinsman Gabriel. In spite of his alms-giving and piety, he is blinded by the "warm droppings" of sparrows and scales cover his eyes.

His wife Anna is forced to work as a weaving woman and, after being accused by Tobit of stealing a goat, she retorts in frustration, "where are your charitable deeds now? Where are your righteous acts?" (2:14) Her complaints here are echoed later while waiting for Tobiah's return.

Tobit prays for death.

In Media, so too does Sarah.

Sarah has been married seven times. Yet Asmodeus, the demon, has slain all seven husbands on their wedding nights. Her maids accuse her of murder. Fleeing into the upstairs room in her father's house, she contemplates suicide, but refrains in order to not shame her father. In this she shows her filial piety and she will be asked to give the same to her future in-laws.

Instead of suicide, she asks God for death.

"the wicked demon Asmodeus"

3. The Adventure

Tobit gives sage parental advice to his son, Tobiah, and instructs him to find a guide to take him to Media to reclaim Tobit's wealth. God heard both Tobit's and Sarah's prayers and sent Raphael, the angel, to help them. Disguised as a kinsman, he agrees to take Tobiah on the dangerous road to Media. The dog followed.

"the dog followed Tobiah out and went along with them"

(Yes, it was most likely a chihuahua.)

When washing his feet in the river, a large fish came for Tobiah's feet. Raphael instructs him to slit open the fish and to take the gall, heart and liver as medicine.

"Its gall, heart and liver are useful medicine."

They stay win the house of Raguel, father of Sarah. As her closest kin, Tobiah has the greatest right to marry her and is convinced to "take her" by Raphael. Raguel agrees to the marriage and a contract is written. Remembering the fish liver and heart, before they celebrate their wedding night, Sarah and Tobiah burn the innards and drive away the demon. Raphael follows and binds the demon.

"Raphael went in pursuit of it and bound it hand and foot."

They feast. Raphael reclaims the silver from Gabriel. Tobit and Anna fret about their child's long departure. Anna watches every day on the road, but Tobiah does not return and she would "cry the whole night". (10:7) Tobit is unable to console her.

"Do not try to deceive me. My son has perished!"

After the wedding celebration, Sarah is instructed to be obedient to her in-laws and is entrusted to Tobiah. They return home with much wealth.

4. Return and blessings

Tobiah, Raphael and the dog leave Sarah behind in order to reach home quickly. In spite of the mother's vigil and worry, and Sarah's unmentioned thoughts on being left behind, Raphael urges a swift return because "you know how we left your father" (11:2).

"And the dog ran along behind them."

Tobiah rubs the fish gall over his father's eyes and restores his sight. He is then able to see his daughter-in-law come to her new home. Tobit praises God for God's mercy. Raphael reveals his identity as an angel. Tobit sings a great song of praise to God and to a Jerusalem of the future.

"God it was who afflicted me, and God who has had mercy on me. Now I see my son Tobiah."

Upon his deathbed, Tobit warns Tobiah to flee to Media to avoid the coming destruction of Nineveh. He tells too of the fall and restoration of Jerusalem and promises that "all the nations of world will turn and reverence God in truth [...and] bless the God of ages in righteousness". (14:6-7)

5. conclusion

In the Hellenistic era, God was portrayed as more remote. In the space between humanity and God, we see the need for intermediaries such as Raphael. We also see less miracles from God and instead God becomes more hidden: God doesn't make a cameo in this story, but God's presence in nonetheless expressed throughout. A skeptical theology appears during this era, as the audience sees that bad things (blindness, seven slain husbands) do happen to good people. Rather than explaining why this it, this becomes a place to contemplate God's vastness and incomprehensibility. In his wealth at first but then in his blindness, and even in his wish for death, Tobit never stops praising God.

"Bless the Lord of righteousness and exalt the King of ages"

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