Tobit and Tobias? Their lives are just like ours!
At first glance, the Book of Tobit is one of the most charming and even fanciful in the Old Testament. Tobit, along with Judith and Esther, are known only through the Greek Bible. They were used and regarded as canonical by the earliest Christians and by the Church herself. Commentators often assign all three to a genre in which stories that appear to be strictly historical (but most probably are not) are used to teach important spiritual and moral lessons.
It is easier to assign this genre to Tobit than to the other two, because Tobit recounts angelic and demonic activity to an extent not present elsewhere in Scripture, and the story appears very similar to the genre we know as the fairy tale. The angel Raphael accompanies Tobit’s son Tobias on a journey to find a wife among his kinsmen. The woman in question, Sarah, has tried to marry seven times, only to have each man slain by the evil spirit Asmodeus before marital consummation is possible. It is this which Tobias finds himself up against, and this that Raphael helps him to overcome.
As I said, it is an utterly charming tale. But what is often overlooked is that the main characters exhibit enormous moral strength arising from a complete trust in God. That is why the lives of Tobit and Tobias are models for our lives. We all face serious challenges. We all have the same opportunity to do God’s will serenely, trusting in His providential care. But we often fail to take that opportunity, looking at our challenges the way most people do, the way our culture does.
Tobit Buries the Dead
The Book of Tobit is set among oppressed Jews within a hostile culture and under a government hostile to their religious law. While still in Israel, Tobit remained faithful to the LORD even though “all the tribes that joined in apostasy used to sacrifice to the calf Baal, and so did the house of Naphtali my forefather” (1:5). Later, when he was taken captive to “Nineveh” (the name appears to be symbolic of evil), “all my brethren and my relatives ate the food of the Gentiles, but I kept myself from eating it, because I remembered God with all my heart” (1:10-11).
These infidelities and fidelities may seem quaint and distant to us, but make no mistake: This is all analogous to the situation of Christians in the modern West, matching our contemporary situation more closely than many would like to admit. We face exactly the same challenge, usually in contrast to what “everybody else” is doing, including a great many ecclesiastical leaders. That is, we are challenged daily to remain faithful to God, separating ourselves cleanly and clearly from the vile spiritual and moral practices of the surrounding culture.
In his own courageous fidelity, Tobit also performed “many acts of charity“ for his brethren:
I would give my bread to the hungry and my clothing to the naked; and if I saw any one of my people dead and thrown out behind the wall of Nineveh, I would bury him. And if Sennacherib the king put to death any who came fleeing from Judea, I buried them secretly. For in his anger he put many to death. When the bodies were sought by the king, they were not found. [1:16-18]
Unfortunately, someone informed the king. Tobit was forced to flee with his wife Anna and his son Tobias while his estate was confiscated. Fortunately, within two months Sennacherib’s sons had killed the king, and his successor appointed one of Tobit’s relatives to be his chief administrator, so Tobit’s estate was returned to him. Nonetheless, things remained extraordinarily difficult, for Tobit became blind and his wife had to earn their living.
Meanwhile, at exactly the same time, a young woman named Sarah, the daughter of a kinsman of Tobit named Raguel, was contemplating suicide. We ought not to take Sarah’s distress lightly, though it is treated only briefly. She had suffered the loss of seven husbands just before the marriage night, and she was mocked even by the servants, for all of this was regarded as a Divine judgment against her.
In response to intense prayer by Tobit, the archangel Raphael was sent to deal with both problems—to heal Tobit and to ensure that his son Tobias will succeed in marrying Sarah, who lived In Ecbatana in Media, a long distance away.
Raphael guides Tobias
In the guise of a wise and seasoned traveler named Azarias, who knows the way, Raphael is engaged to guide Tobias to Raguel’s home, passing through many dangers. Once there, Tobias asks for the hand of Sarah and finds himself facing the greatest test of his life. Stating clearly that Tobias has the right to marry his daughter through kinship, Raguel seeks to put him off by explaining the danger frankly:
“I have given my daughter to seven men of our kinsmen, and when each came to her he died in the night. But for the present, my child, eat and drink, and the LORD will act on behalf of you both.” But Tobias said, “I will eat nothing here unless you make a binding agreement with me.” [7:11]
Here again, Tobias’ life is like ours; Tobias’ challenges are our challenges. Tobias, like his father Tobit, is undaunted by evil, unafraid of the Devil even in his direct manifestations.
I will pause here so we can all remember that the preternatural manifestations of Satan have no power whatsoever over a baptized Christian in the state of grace, who possesses the Blessed Trinity within his very self. Yet how often do we change course in view of the Evil One’s pathetic blandishments, or at the first whiff of his noxious stench? Why should we be so reluctant to do God’s will whenever we face human opposition orchestrated by the Father of Lies? We miss the point of the Book of Tobit if we fail to see that this seemingly fanciful text was designed by God to inject spiritual reality into our own lives—two to three millennia after it was written.
As it turns out in the story, Raphael has already given Tobias a rather odd method of defeating the evil spirit, a technique which looks suspiciously like a magic spell, recounted in chapter 6. Perhaps this should be taken as a means of bolstering the young man’s confidence, for it actually appears to be completely incidental. More importantly, Raphael has also told Tobias to pray. “And when you approach her,” he said, “rise up, both of you, and cry out to the merciful God, and he will save you and have mercy on you” (6:17). Than Raphael made the classic angelic statement: “Do not be afraid” (6:17).
Tobias, without the least fear, simply did as he was told, blessing God together with Sarah before they retired to bed. But perhaps we can discern a more apt symbol for the rest of us, for while the two were closeted in the bed chamber, Raguel slipped out quietly to dig another grave!
Obviously the Book of Tobit has a happy ending. But we must not ignore the steel at its core, which is seen clearly again in its last verse. The sacred author tells us that Tobias lived to the ripe old age of 127, “but before he died he heard of the destruction of Nineveh, which Nebuchadnezzar and Ahasuerus had captured” (14:15). Indeed, “Before his death he rejoiced over Nineveh.”
It is all so simple, is it not? Neither Tobit nor Tobias wavered, no matter what the threatened cost, because both trusted and rejoiced always in God’s victory over evil.
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