‘The Book of Tobit’: A Boy, a Girl, an Angel … and a Dog

‘The Book of Tobit’: A Boy, a Girl, an Angel … and a Dog June 8, 2017

Tobias-and-the-Archangel-Raphael-XX-Jacopo-VignaliAll this week in the daily Mass readings, we’re hearing the Book of Tobit, which I have to say is one of my personal favorites.

Tobit is the only time in Scripture that we meet the Archangel Raphael, whose name means “God Heals.” It’s also the only time a dog appears as a domestic pet. There’s a quest, adventures, miraculous healing, and a wedding with God at its center.

It’s generally understood that Tobit, probably written early in the second century. B.C., is not meant as an historical account — although it contains historical details — but as an allegory.

Although, that’s not the view of all, writes Catholic apologist (and former Episcopalian priest) Dr. Taylor Marshall. Please read the whole thing, but here’s a taste:

There is one problem with this kind of defense regarding “Tobit as inspired fiction.” The Church Fathers did not believe in the fictional nature of the book of Tobit. They believed and taught that Tobit was historical person and that the book bearing his name told a true and historical story.
St. Polycarp, St. Clement of Alexandria, Origen, St. Athanasius, St. Cyprian, St Ephrem, St. Ambrose, and St. Augustine refer to the characters and narrative of Tobit as historical. As late as 1822, the Holy See had a book put on the Index of Forbidden Books because it asserted by the book of Tobit was not historical but poetical (the book was Joahnn Jahn’s Introductio in libros sacros).
Did St Augustine or even St Thomas Aquinas miss something important when they taught that Tobit was historical and factual?

Tobit is also one of the books omitted from Protestant Bibles (along with Judith, additions to Esther, Wisdom, Sirach — a k a Ecclesiasticus or Ecclesiastes — Baruch, additions to Daniel, and 1 and 2 Maccabees).

That’s a shame, because it’s a wonderful story. Tobit’s son Tobiah (or Tobias) sets off on a quest, in the company of an angel disguised as a human named Azarias — and a dog. In the end, he marries the girl, saves his father and escapes annihilation.

Dang, it doesn’t get better than that.

Here’s how the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops summarizes the Book of Tobit:

Tobit, a devout and wealthy Israelite living among the captives deported to Nineveh from the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 722/721 B.C., suffers severe reverses and is finally blinded. Because of his misfortunes he begs the Lord to let him die. But recalling the large sum he had formerly deposited in far-off Media, he sends his son Tobiah there to bring back the money. In Media, at this same time, a young woman, Sarah, also prays for death, because she has lost seven husbands, each killed in turn on his wedding night by the demon Asmodeus. God hears the prayers of Tobit and Sarah and sends the angel Raphael in human form to aid them both.

Raphael makes the trip to Media with Tobiah. When Tobiah is attacked by a large fish as he bathes in the Tigris River, Raphael orders him to seize it and to remove its gall, heart, and liver because they are useful for medicine. Later, at Raphael’s urging, Tobiah marries Sarah, and uses the fish’s heart and liver to drive Asmodeus from the bridal chamber.

Returning to Nineveh with his wife and his father’s money, Tobiah rubs the fish’s gall into his father’s eyes and cures him. Finally, Raphael reveals his true identity and returns to heaven. Tobit then utters his beautiful hymn of praise. Before dying, Tobit tells his son to leave Nineveh because God will destroy that wicked city. After Tobiah buries his father and mother, he and his family depart for Media, where he later learns that the destruction of Nineveh has taken place.

This summary doesn’t mention the dog. All the Scripture tells us is that the dog took itself along on the quest. Now, we’re not sure if it’s Tobit’s dog, the angel’s dog or a stray dog. Some have speculated the dog was another angel in canine form — a notion which would please dedicated dog owners.

But, the appearance of this lone canine character in all of the Bible is significant. The animal has appeared in many works of art depicting the characters of Tobit.


It’s also often cited as reason why one traditional name for dogs is Toby — including the dog in Punch & Judy shows, and in Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories (Doyle’s family and upbringing were Catholic, even if he later fell into the superstition of spiritualism).

Tobit speaks to me of faithfulness — of Tobit to God, Tobiah to Tobit, Tobiah and Sarah to God and each other, Raphael to God and to Tobiah and Tobit, and the dog to them all. It speaks of trust in God even in the face of terrible trials.

And it’s a reminder that you just never know when you might be walking with an angel.

Here’s the whole book read aloud:

And here’s a charming version for children, in an Indian dialect.


Image: Wikimedia Commons

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