Tobias and the angel

A bit of a change this time from my reading of Saint Paul’s letters. The book of Tobias, which is found in Catholic Bibles and some protestant Bibles, forms part of what I call the traditional literature of the Hebrew nation. Although it contains some historical material at the very beginning, the book’s chief character and his son, both called Tobias, cannot be accurately situated historically. Without in any way saying that the story has no historical basis, we can still say that the narrative style used here is that of popular story-telling – it is a suspenseful thriller, perhaps. The scene is set of a father (let’s call him Tobias Senior) who has spent his wealth on giving alms to the poor and his energy on the burial of dead bodies, particular of Jews. He is presented as the picture of the Just Man (see psalm 1 and psalm 14). He is given as having done all this illegally and narrowly escaped death for it. These two corporal works of mercy, which the Church still honours, earned him the affection of the Holy One, Who dispatches the great supporting character, the archangel Raphael, who is sent down to help the Tobiases and Tobias Junior’s wife-to-be Sara, who was being afflicted by a malign spirit called Asmodaeus. In the process, the angel befriends and assists the Tobias Junior in a quest. With a parting flourish, the angel returns from whence he came and Tobias sings his great song. Let’s march through the whole wonderful story.

The story begins by placing Tobias Senior in the dispersion of the northern kingdom of Israel, which had been destroyed by the Assyrians, led by their King Salmanasar, and Tobias is portrayed as the true Hebrew, faithful to the one God and, even as a boy, not led astray by the Egyptian religion introduced by King Jeroboam I of Israel:

“Even when he was a boy, and was of least regard among the men of Nephthali, no boyish levity did his acts display. While the rest had recourse to the golden calves Jeroboam had set up when he reigned in Israel, Tobias shunned their company and went his own way; went up to Jerusalem to the Lord’s temple, and worshipped the Lord that was God of Israel. First-fruit and tithe he duly offered…”

Tobias, 1: 4-6

The ultimate religious Hebrew, Tobias followed up his love of God with the inevitable love of neighbour as he gave alms in abundance and even defied the wicked King Sennacherib of Assyria, who had a hatred for the Hebrews, to carefully bury the dead.

“Time passed; Salmanasar died, and the throne passed to his son Sennacherib, who was no friend to the Jews; and now it was Tobias’ daily task to visit his own clansmen, comforting them and providing for each of them as best he could, out of what store he had; it was for him to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to honour with careful burial men that had died of sickness, and men slain. When Sennacherib came home from Judaea, escaping while he might from the divine vengeance his blasphemies had brought upon him, he killed many an Israelite in his anger; and these too Tobias would bury. When this came to the king’s ears, he gave orders that Tobias should be put to death, and seized all his property…

Tobias, 1: 18-22

In the course of all his troubles, wearied out by his self-appointment as grave-digger and undertaker, he was blinded. In his increasing desperation of poverty and bearing the curse of the people in their exile in Assyria, Tobias made a heartfelt prayer for justice. Unknown to him, his future daughter-in-law was making her own prayer for justice, having been disgraced by having lost seven husbands before her marriages could be consummated and so acquiring the reputation of a murderer. Far away, beyond time, the archangel Raphael is dispatched to make things right (all this is chapter three). Now, long ago, Tobias Senior had made a loan to another Hebrew called Gabelus, and he now dispatched his son to recover the sum to relieve the family of poverty. He asked Tobias Junior to go and find a travelling companion, and behold! the archangel is at the gate, made up as the trustworthy Azarias and all ready to go. 

“Then Tobias asked, ‘Wilt thou take my son with thee, and guide him to Media, to Rages, and so to the house of Gabelus? There shall be a reward awaiting thee on thy return.’ ‘I will take him there,’ said the angel, ‘and bring him home again besides.’ Then Tobias would know of what household or tribe he came. It was indeed no other than the angel Raphael that spoke to him; ‘What,’ he answered, ‘is it my lineage, not myself, thou wouldst have for thy son’s escort? But set thy mind at rest; my name is Azarias, and a man of renown, Ananias, was my father.’ ‘Forgive me,’ Tobias said, ‘for doubting thy lineage; thou comest of good stock indeed.'”

Tobias, 5: 14-19

After that momentary doubt, Tobias senior gives them his blessing and the two are on their way. Mid journey, they come upon a monstrous fish in the river Tigris and the angel duly advises Tobias Junior to harvest certain organs of the fish, which would be advantageous later. One would provide a salve that would heal his father’s blindness, the other would take care of the demon that harrassed his wife-to-be and killed her husbands. The angel’s advice to Tobias concerning the marriage is interesting, for it demonstrates the fundamentals of Catholic marriage, as the Church holds them today: the bearing and rearing of children and the mutual support of the spouses.

“‘Heed me well,’ answered Raphael, ‘and thou shalt hear why the fiend has power to hurt some and not others. The fiend has power over such as go about their marrying with all thought of God shut out of their hearts and minds, wholly intent on their lust, as if they were horse or mule, brutes without reason. Not such be thy mating, when thou hast won thy bride. For three days deny thyself her favours, and the time you spend together, spend all in prayer. The first night, burn the liver of yonder fish, and therewith the fiend shall be driven away. On the second night, union thou shalt have, but with the company of the holy patriarchs. The third night, thy prayer shall win thee a blessing, of children safely born to thee and to her. Then, when the third night is past, take the maid to thyself with the fear of the Lord upon thee, moved rather by the hope of begetting children than by any lust of thine. So, in the true line of Abraham, thou shalt have joy of thy fatherhood.”

Tobias, 6: 16-22

That’s three days of chastity and continence before God, which is what I suppose is meant by the phrase ‘with the company of the holy patriarchs‘ of the Hebrews, who had faithfully consecrated themselves to God to receive His promises. Tobias Junior and Raphael duly arrive at the house of Raguel, a distant cousin of Tobias Senior, whose daughter Anna happens to be the maid in distress. The marriage covenant is made and the demon is dispatched, and there’s a spot of Old Testament humour here as old Raguel digs a tomb for Tobias, expecting him to have died like his other seven sons-in-law, although the married couple turns out to be safe and sound in bed. He’d best get it done by sunrise, so nobody would know that an eighth had died, to the further ill-repute of his daughter.

“And now it was cock-crow, and Raguel had all his men out betimes to help him dig the grave; ‘Like enough,’ thought he, ‘this one will have fared no better than the other seven that took her to wife.’ Their digging done, he went back to his wife, and bade her send one of her maids to find out if Tobias were dead; it were best to have him in his grave before the sun was up. So the maid went on her errand, and ventured into the bride-chamber, where both lay asleep together, safe and sound. When she returned with that good news, Raguel and Anna fell to praising the Lord; ‘God of Israel,’ said they, ‘we thank Thee that our fears were vain!'”

Tobias, 8: 11-17

After days of feasting and gaining much in dowry from the wedding, and after Raphael had been to Gabelus to recover the loaned money, Tobias Junior made finally to return to his parents, who had begun to mourn his loss in chapter ten. But all is well, for the return is successful and, in a beautiful line for dog-lovers, is heralded by the travelling dog.

“Yet he was not to reach the house first. The dog that had accompanied him on his travels ran on before him, heralding the good news with the caress of his wagging tail. Up sprang the father, blind though he were, and made for the door, running and stumbling as he ran. A servant must take him by the hand before he could go out to meet his son; but meet him he did, embraced and kissed him, and his wife too must embrace the boy and kiss him, and then they both wept over him; but they were tears of joy.”

Tobias, 11: 9-11

In their great rejoicing, father and son remember that none of this would have happened at all if it were not for the mysterious youth Azarias. They try to give him money and half of all their newly-found fortune, when he literally knocks them off their feet with his revelation:

“‘When thou, Tobias, wert praying, and with tears, when thou wert burying the dead, leaving thy dinner untasted, so as to hide them all day in thy house, and at night give them funeral, I, all the while, was offering that prayer of thine to the Lord. Then, because thou hadst won His favour, needs must that trials should come, and test thy worth. And now, for thy healing, for the deliverance of thy son’s wife Sara from the fiend’s attack, He has chosen me for His messenger. Who am I? I am the angel Raphael, and my place is among those seven who stand in the presence of the Lord.’ Upon hearing this, they were both mazed with terror, and fell down trembling, face to earth. Peace be with you, the angel said; do not be afraid.”

Tobias, 12: 12-17

When the angel had completed his leap to return beyond the world, Tobias Senior sang his great song of praise of the God Who had never abandoned him after all, but still helped his children in distant exile from the Holy Land but who remained faithful to him.

“Great is Thy name, Lord, for ever; Thy kingdom cannot fail. Thine to scourge, Thine to pity; Thou dost bring men to the grave and back from the grave; from Thy power there is no deliverance. Sons of Israel, make His name known, publish it for all the Gentiles to hear; if He has dispersed you among heathen folk who know nothing of Him, it was so that you might tell them the story of His great deeds, convince them that He, and no other, is God all-powerful. He it is that has scourged us for our sins; He it is that will deliver us in His mercy. Look and see how He has dealt with us, and then give thanks to Him, but with trembling awe in your hearts; let your own deeds acclaim Him, King of all the ages. I, at least, in this land of exile, will be the spokesman of His praise, tell the story of His dread dealings with a sinful race. Come back, sinners, and do His will; doubt not that He will shew you mercy.”

Tobias, 13: 1-8

Beautifully missionary, and by his acts Tobias has been a splendid missionary for the Hebrew religion. The rest of the book is a bit of a wrap-up. Tobias predicts the return of the people to Jerusalem at the end of chapter thirteen and we then discover his prosperity in old-age, and his final advice to his seven grandsons to return with their families to the Holy Land after the destruction of Nineve, ending with this splendid Messianic statement:

“The Lord’s words must needs come true; it will not be long before Nineve is destroyed. After that, our exiled brethren will be able to return to the land of Israel; the deserted country-side will be populous once again, and its Temple, long since destroyed by fire, will be built anew, and all those who fear God will find their way back to it. Then the Gentiles, too, will forsake their false gods; will betake themselves to Jerusalem, and find a home there; all the kings of the earth will take pride in it, as they pay worship to the King who reigns in Israel!

Tobias, 14: 6-9

Tobias was buried with his wife at Nineve and Tobias Junior returned to his in-laws and eventually buried them also, enjoying long life and prosperity himself – the ultimate reward for faithfulness to God.

back to II Esdras (Nehemias) | Tobias | on to Judith