By this, I mean that it tells the story of a father sending his only son into the world to redeem a bride, saving her from the curse of death. In addition, we are treated with some of the best parental advice ever given, a theology of angels, a prelude to Christ’s sermon on the Mount of Olives, and much more.
As a result, it is not surprising that rabbinical Jews, in reaction to the burgeoning faith, had this book stricken from their canon. It proves too much; it shows too much; it makes plain that the gospel is true and that Jesus of Nazareth – the one they had murdered – is the messiah, the long-prophesied “anointed one” of Israel.
Tobit (the father figure) is a very faithful and charitable man. While in the process of burying a friend (on the Feast of Pentecost, no less), he is stricken with blindness in a freak accident (let’s just say a bird is involved). Given over to sadness and grief, Tobit becomes a little “testy” at this time, annoying his wife Anna. Her gentle rebuke leads him to repentance and a prayer of genuine contrition:
O Lord, You are righteous. So too are all Your works. All Your ways are mercy and truth. Your judgments are true and just forever … Do not punish me for my sins and my ignorance, nor those sins of my fathers which they committed against You … Now do with me as is best before You. Command that my spirit be taken up, so I may be released and become soil, since it is better for me to die than to live … Command that I be freed from distress to now enter into the eternal place. Do not turn your face away from me (3:2-6).
At the same time Tobit is praying, considering the relief of Hades (the realm of the dead), a girl named Sarah in the land of Media is also begging God for assistance. She has been married seven times, and all seven husbands have died on their wedding night! She is widely scorned, even by her own parents, and rightly thought to be cursed by an evil demon named Asmodeus. She too considers death, but turns to prayer instead: “Seven of my husbands have already perished. What should I live for? But if it does not seem good to You to kill me, command that I be looked upon with favor, and that mercy be shown to me, so I may no longer hear disgrace” (3:15).
And then, the kicker: We see that the Archangel Raphael has heard both of their prayers. He is sent from the presence of God to “heal the two of them” (3:16).
The next day, Tobit sends his (only) son Tobias on a journey to Media in order to collect some silver previously entrusted to his friend Gabael. Before Tobias departs, Tobit gives his son sound advice. Perhaps no greater words have ever been spoken by a father to his son. I will share just a few excerpts, but I encourage everyone to read the whole passage, if only because many of these words are used by Christ Himself in His teaching in the Holy Gospels:
My son, if I die, bury me, but do not disregard your mother. Honor her all the days of your life. Do what is pleasing to her, but do not grieve her. Remember, my son, that she experienced many dangers for you while you were in the womb … Remember the Lord our God all your days, and do not desire to sin or to disobey His commandments … if you walk in the truth, you will be successful in your works. Do almsgiving from your possessions to all who do righteousness … Do not turn your face away from any poor man, so the face of God will not be turned away from you … Do not be afraid to give according to the little you have. You are storing up a good treasure for yourself in the day of necessity. For almsgiving delivers us from death and prevents us from entering into the darkness … Do not keep overnight the wages of any man who works for you, but pay him immediately … Be disciplined in your conduct. What you yourself hate, do not do to anyone … From your bread, give to him who is hungry, and from your clothing, give to the naked … Seek counsel from every sensible man, and do not treat any useful advice with contempt. At every opportunity bless the Lord God, but more than this ask that your ways may become straight, and that all Your paths and purposes may prosper … Let none of my commandments be removed from your heart (4:3-19).
With that, Tobias heads off into the wilderness in order to collect his father’s silver. As part of his agreement with his father, Tobias hires a companion for the journey (the Archangel Raphael, disguised as a man named Azarias). When they arrive at the Tigris River, Raphael has Tobias take certain parts of a fish and store them for future use. As they continue on their journey, Raphael reveals that the heart and liver of the fish can be burned as incense to drive away an evil spirit (demon), while the gall can be used to anoint and heal a person’s eyes.
When they arrive at Rages of Media, Raphael informs Tobias that he knows of a woman (Sarah) that he could take for a bride, since she is of his people and Tobias alone can receive her inheritance. Tobias is, of course, concerned that he will die at the hands of the demon, just like the seven previous suitors. However, Raphael eases his mind and convinces him that if he trusts in the Lord and burns the incense of the fish’s heart and liver, he will be spared.
When they meet with Sarah’s family, they are welcomed with joy and open arms as they learn that Tobias is the son of Tobit (a man their family knows and loves). They even kill a ram and sheep, devouring a great feast. Tobias and Sarah are married, and they burn the special incense and together pray that God may guard them as they sleep.
Sarah’s parents are still worried, however, so they dig a grave for Tobias, expecting what they assume to be the inevitable! However, when they learn in the morning that Tobias is still alive, they back-fill the grave. This action is highly symbolic: Tobias has overcome death and rescued his bride, who was formerly besieged by evil. This happy ending anticipates the paschal victory of Christ.
In the meantime, Raphael has gone to Rages of Media to collect the silver from Gabael for Tobit. With this task complete, Raphael, together with Tobias and Sarah, depart for home. Upon returning, Tobias uses the fish gall to cure Tobit’s blindness. Both Tobit and Anna are overjoyed and relieved to find Tobias alive and well, and with his beautiful new bride. They rejoice before the Lord in song and prayer.
Tobit is so pleased with Raphael (“Azarias”) that he tells Tobias to give him half of everything they own as a reward! It is at this point that Raphael calls Tobit and Tobias aside and speaks to them in secret:
Bless God and give Him thanks. Ascribe greatness to Him and give thanks in the presence of all the living for what He has done for you … Do good, and evil will not find you. Prayer is good with fasting, almsgiving and righteousness … It is better to do almsgiving than to lay up gold. For almsgiving rescues one from death, and it will wash away every sin. Those who do almsgiving and are righteous will be full of life (12:6-9).
As so often throughout Scripture, the importance of almsgiving, fasting, and righteous living are made clear. These continue to be crucial elements of Christian piety. In this story, we see that generosity and righteousness led to healing and salvation for Tobit, Tobias and Sarah. The great angel continues:
Now when you and your daughter-in-law Sarah prayed, I brought the remembrance of your prayer before the Holy One. When you also buried the dead, I was likewise present with you … Now God sent me to heal you and Sarah your daughter-in-law. I am Raphael, one of the seven holy angels who report the prayers of the saints and who enter before the glory of the Holy One … Now give thanks to God, because I am ascending to Him who sent me. Write in a book everything that was accomplished (12:12-20).
And this, of course, is how we came to have the Book of Tobit – and what a blessing it is!
In the end, Tobit exalts the Lord with a great hymn that is at once prophecy and thanksgiving. Though too long to quote here in its entirety, I encourage the reader to pick-up the Septuagint (LXX) and read it for himself. Of special note, Tobit speaks of the coming apostasy of Israel and the inclusion of the Gentiles as God’s people:
O Jerusalem, the holy city, He will scourge you for the deeds of your sons, but He will again show mercy to the sons of the righteous … Many Gentiles will come from afar to the name of the Lord God, bearing gifts in their hands and offerings to the King of heaven. Generations of generations will offer you joyful worship (13:10,13).
Additionally, Tobit prophesies the coming “new Jerusalem,” using language reminiscent of Saint John’s Apocalypse:
For Jerusalem will be built with sapphire and emerald, and her walls with precious stones, and her towers and battlements with pure gold. The streets of Jerusalem will be paved with beryl, onyx, and stones from Ophir. All her streets will proclaim, ‘Alleluia!’ And will give praise, saying, ‘Blessed is God, who exalted you unto all the ages’ (13:17-18).
Again, it is no wonder that works such as Tobit were removed from the anti-Christian Jewish canons of Jamnia and the Masoretes. The Book of Tobit is replete with the commandments and wisdom of God. It clearly anticipates the story of God’s messiah: the only Son sent by the Father to redeem His precious Bride from evil and death.