The Book of Tobit begins with the introduction of its main character, a member of the tribe of Naphtali and a pious Israelite. It is clear that the work is historical fiction, and Tobit’s life is set during the time of the Assyrian invasions and the exile of many Israelites away from their homeland. Historically, the invasions started in 732 B.C. under Tiglath-Pileser III, but the story indicates that Tobit was carted away to Assyria during the reign of Shalmaneser (727-722 B.C.) The fall of Samaria and the principle exile occurred in 722 B.C. under Sargon II sometime after Tobit’s departure. Tobit we are told did everything to help his brethren while in captivity. The author makes a point to establish that Tobit’s piety extended way back to his youth when he refused to worship the Golden Calves that were set up by Jeroboam. Whether these idols were still in existence in Israel in the middle of the 8th century B.C. when the story takes place is unclear, but they were initially set up 150 years earlier. Instead of worshipping these graven images, we are told that Tobit followed the Law of Moses and worshipped at Jerusalem. It is very likely that someone from the tribe of Judah wrote or was a final editor of the story of Tobit considering the tone of this religious bias against the Northern Kingdom. It seems certain that the work was completed by the 2nd century B.C. as fragments of the text were found among the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran. We are informed that when he became an adult, Tobit took a wife named Anna who gave birth to a son who was his father’s namesake. (Tobit means “God is my good,” and Anna means “grace or favor.”) To distinguish father from son in the narrative, we will refer to the son as Tobias which is the Greek version of the name.
Tobit’s home was in Nineveh and because he had favor with Shalmaneser he was at liberty to travel about as he wanted and would routinely help his brethren. On one occasion he went to the city of Rages in Media carrying 10 talents of silver which he had been given by the king. Upon seeing a fellow countryman named Gabelus in need, he lent him the money and wrote a promissory note so that he could reclaim it in the future. This seems to be the end of the good fortune that Tobit enjoyed, for the text indicates that Shalmaneser died and his son Sennacherib, a man who hated the people of Israel took over the kingdom. Historically this is not quite accurate, because Sargon II succeeded Shalmaneser V, but that notwithstanding there seems to be a parallel between the favorable early years of Tobit with the early years of Israel’s sojourn in Egypt when the Pharaoh at the time was friendly to the Semitic peoples immigrating to his country. And like in the story of Tobit, sometime later a new Egyptian king arose who had hostility to the children of Israel and mistreated them. Despite the harsher environment, Tobit persisted in his works of mercy including feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and burying the dead. In fact the last activity seems to have been of great importance to the Jewish people in general who put a premium on a decent burial.
On a particular occasion Sennacherib had returned up north from a campaign in Judah that had gone very badly. This was likely the biblical siege of Jerusalem during Hezekiah’s reign in 701 B.C. where according to the scripture, 185,000 men were put to death by the angel of the Lord. In a foul mood upon his return, the Book of Tobit suggests that the king slew many Israelites and pious Tobit took it upon himself to bury their bodies. This caught the attention of Sennacherib who ordered all of Tobit’s belongings confiscated and put a death warrant out for him. But Tobit and his wife and son went into hiding. In this, the story bears a certain resemblance to the play Antigone by Sophocles which might have been written prior to the final compilation of Tobit. In that play, Antigone feeling a moral imperative defies the king and buries her slain brother who was to be left in the field as a feast for carrion. As a consequence she was buried alive as a punishment, a penalty she was willing to risk to do what was right. Tobit also did not care what harm might come to him by following God’s will, but as things would turn out, only 45 days after he went into hiding the king was assassinated by his two sons. Historically this was indeed correct, for Adrammelech and Sharezer killed him and later fled out of the country while his other son Esarhaddon became king. However it was hardly just 45 days after the failed siege of Jerusalem that this happened but a whole 20 years, for Sennacherib was murdered in 681 B.C. When the new king came on the scene, we are informed that Tobit’s possessions were restored and he returned back to Nineveh. (In one version of the story, it was Tobit’s nephew Ahiqar who helped him come home again, for Ahiqar was conveniently chancellor to Esarhaddon and his predecessor. This right hand man to the king was a well known literary figure throughout the Near East popularized through a work known as the Story of Ahiqar which became widely circulated in the 5th century B.C.)
After his return home, Tobit decided to have a feast at his house with his countrymen and during that celebration it was reported to him that a fellow Israelite lay slain in the street, so Tobit inconspicuously collected his body and secretly buried it at night. And the text says that he continued to bury other Israelites surreptiously at midnight for which he was upbraided by his countrymen. They more or less told him he was a fool for risking his life again, for he almost died before getting caught burying someone else. But Tobit feared God more than the king. The narrative incidentally quotes the prophet Amos regarding the pall cast over Tobit’s feast saying, “Your festival days shall be turned into lamentation and mourning.” While Amos would have been essentially a contemporary of Tobit prophecying in Judah, it is likely that his writings would not have been compiled and accepted as authoritative until the post exilic period which supports the idea that the Book of Tobit is also a later composition.
At this point in the story, some more fantastic elements are introduced which signal the allegorical nature of the work. Tobit, wearied from burying the dead, collapsed against the wall of his house and fell asleep. It so happened that he lay right below a swallow’s nest and some bird dung fell upon his eyes and blinded him. (In this there may also be a connection to the play Antigone, for another character in the story was the blind prophet Tiresias, also of high moral character who condemned what had befallen Antigone and her brother by the king.) Naturally we would be appalled that a pious man such as Tobit should receive this fate, but the narrative immediately interprets the sad event as a trial sent from God in the tradition of Job that he might be an example of patience in affliction. Like Job, Tobit was blameless from his youth, and like Job he also began to suffer the criticism of his relatives. They essentially said, “Look at the reward you have received for all of your almsgiving and burying the dead!” But Tobit persisted in his faith. The account goes on to say that his wife was forced to become the bread winner and went out to work as a weaver to support the family. On one occasion she received a kid that she brought home. Suspecting the worst, Tobit gently chided her for stealing it and bid her return it, and this precipitated Anna’s wrath who like his relatives suggested that all of his works of piety were for naught. Like Job’s wife who invited her husband to “curse God and die,” Anna also sought to undermine Tobit’s faith for its material futility.
While this unfortunate turn of events is on one level a mirror of the story of Job, it paints a picture of a more universal scenario which is the story of all humanity in general. The chapter begins with a festival which was in fact Pentecost, or the Feast of Weeks which celebrated the first fruits of the wheat harvest. That this particular grain is in scope suggests that the narrative is really about the soul for wheat has historically been a metaphor for this inner component of man. Recall Jesus’ illustration: “Unless a grain of wheat fall into the ground and die, it remains alone.” This fanciful tale is then the story of the primitive soul which is steeped in the ways of the world and is oblivious to God. Tobit’s physical blindness is consequently a metaphor for spiritual blindness which comes from the pursuit of worthless materialism (dung.) When the soul is immersed in this condition, it is the lower nature of man which controls him. In allegory it is the woman who traditionally represents the negative and baser side of our being, and so Anna who has become the sole provider for the family illustrates how the lower self has full power over the young soul. The mention of a kid or goat which Anna received as part of her wages additionally symbolizes the state of sin which is in play, for the goat in contrast to the sheep has always represented evil. Perhaps relevant to that idea is the Levitical scapegoat which bore the sins of the Israelite community on the Day of Atonement. The myth that follows through the rest of the Book of Tobit is then best interpreted by understanding the main characters as one single entity. That is to say, the family of Tobit, Anna, and Tobias reflect the one soul that finds itself starting out in a miserable way.
Worn out by his nagging wife, his own disability and lack of purpose, Tobit found himself in a dark place no longer wishing to go on. He offered to God a prayer of repentance for the sins of the Israelites which landed them in captivity and then asked for the forgiveness of his own sins and God’s mercy. Then he concluded the prayer requesting that God would summon his spirit to himself for “it would be better for [him] to die than to live.” Perhaps feeling trapped in this unhappy situation would make even the most pious person feel helpless and depressed. Yes this lowpoint in the story symbolizes the first glimmer of hope for the desperate soul. Early in our spiritual journey we will all chase after material gain and pursue pleasure and power and fame, and maybe at first we will achieve some of it. But sooner or later the obsession with those goals will cause us to become disenchanted, for we either become dissatisfied with the hollowness of those things or we become remorseful at the evil we have done to obtain them. Ultimately, we will all become disillusioned by the pain and cruel tragedies of life that impact us and those we love. Tobit’s desire for death is then a sign that the soul is now ready to abandon its worldly pursuits and change direction. It has reached rock bottom wondering if this is all that life has to offer. Surely there must be something better, more meaningful, more enduring than this transient and difficult existence it has known. Of course when one has reached rock bottom, there is no place to go but up, and at this point in the narrative that long climb out of the dark hole begins.
On the exact same day that Tobit cried out to God to end his life, we are told that a young woman living far away was also at the end of her rope and was asking God to remove her from this life as well. Her name was Sarah, the daughter of a man named Raguel who lived in the Median city of Rages, coincidentally the city of the same name where Tobit had travelled years earlier and had lent out 10 talents of silver. And so the author intends an important connection between these two characters. Sarah was at her wits’ end, because she had been given seven husbands but on the wedding night, before the marriage could be consummated a demon known as Asmodeus killed them leaving her a widow. This demon’s name is of Persian origin where it is called “Ashema Deva,” (demon of wrath.) In Jewish writings it is identified as the demon of lust which seems pertinent to this story line. On this particular day, her maidservant had faulted Sarah for these deaths and called her a murderer and she called down a curse upon her that she should be childless as a punishment for her sins. In her distress Sarah went up to her room and didn’t eat or drink for three days. Such treatment reminds us of how Abraham’s wife Sarah was mistreated by her maidservant Hagar because she had borne the patriarch a son while Sarah could not conceive. Likewise, Hannah the mother of Samuel was provoked by her rival Peninnah (his father’s other wife) because she had children and Hannah could not. And this taunting also drove Hannah to stop eating. It seems the author of the Book of Tobit had these biblical characters in mind, and perhaps not only them but also Rachel the wife of Jacob and Elizabeth the wife of Zechariah who with others were all barren, an important theme running throughout the scriptures. That this Sarah the daughter of Raguel had seven husbands and yet remained childless seems significant, for it likely was the literary basis for the Sadducees’ hypothetical question to Jesus about seven brothers who were married to the same woman in their attempts to trip him up.
According to the text, God heard the cries of both Tobit and Sarah and sent the angel Raphael “to heal them both.” Appropriately, the name Raphael means “God heals” and so he is chosen for this special role. Raphael figures mainly in extrabiblical literature and is ranked with those high angels like Michael and Gabriel who stand in the presence of God. In this respect, according to mystical theology he is one of the highest ranking Seraphs who see God face to face.
After offering his prayer to God, Tobit felt that it was heard and thought that his life might be drawing to a close. So he called his son to himself to offer some sage advice in the event of his passing. First and foremost, he impressed upon Tobias the need to bury his body in a proper way much as he had done for many of his countrymen which reflects the premium the author put on this tradition. It was afterall the earnest practice of the patriarchs who often obtained caves to inter the dead. It is unclear what the theological implications of burial were to the ancient Jews that it was considered very important, but modern Jews have a ritual known as “tahara” which is a preparation for burial involving prayers and ceremonial washing of the body. At the most basic level, it is understood that the body needs to be returned to the earth from whence it came. Tobit made clear to his son that he should do the same for his mother in the day of her passing as well.
Moving on from that morose subject, he emphasized the need to help the poor particularly through almsgiving which had always been the message of the prophets. Tobit’s words confidently asserted that almsgiving was a sure way to make reparation for sins and would ensure someone of a good standing before God. Additionally he charged his son to avoid fornication and to resist pride which was man’s undoing at the beginning. Tobit was also sure to mention the Levitical mandate to pay a hired hand his wages the same day for to do otherwise was tantamount to robbery. Perhaps this was because many lived hand to mouth and would be hardpressed to do without what they earned for even one night. Tobit also advised him to feed the poor and clothe the naked, ideas which we certainly find in the teachings of the Messiah.
But of all his advice to his son, perhaps the most sublime instruction he gave was, “See that you never do to another what you would hate to be done to you by another.” Even before Jesus’ version of the Golden Rule in the gospels, the idea was present in Old Testament times not only among the Jews but among the sages of other religions. Despite all the harsh laws of vengeance and retribution in the Mosaic Law, there is still to be found the familiar command “Love your neighbor as yourself” among the pages of Leviticus. Hillel the Elder who lived potentially at the time of the Book of Tobit’s final compilation had summarized the Law and the Prophets also in familiar words: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: this is the whole Torah.” And so by the end of the 2nd century B.C., when this kind of sentiment was floating around, the author felt it imperative to include it in his main character’s words of wisdom.
Having given his son his best counsel, Tobit proceeded to inform Tobias that when he was a child, he lent ten talents of silver to Gabelus in the city of Rages in Media and that it was now time for Tobias to take the promissory note and take a trip to cash in on that money. As far as the external details of the story go, this would seem like a reasonable thing to do considering the circumstances. Being unable to work and strapped for funds, Tobit was certainly needful of more resources to make things a little easier for the family. But in this commission to travel far from home, the author has signaled much more to the reader than just an excursion to collect an old debt; here begins what is commonly identified in mythology as the “hero’s journey.” Probably the most classic work to illustrate this literary construct is the Odyssey by the Greek poet Homer. In that story, Ulysses after the end of the Trojan War set out for his home but was blown way off course such that it took 20 years for him to make it back to his native city. In that time, he had to endure fierce trials including storms at sea, sea monsters, giants, and cannibals along the way. Finally after surviving many hardships that nearly cost him his life, he set foot back home in Ithaca.
Such adventures are common in a good storyline, and that this precarious kind of journey has such broad appeal is that it speaks to something deep inside of us. This wayfaring symbolizes our own pilgrimage of spiritual transformation which involves facing difficult and frightening obstacles along the way. Because it is our common calling, the journey resonates deeply with us and though it creates much fear, it also thrills at the same time commanding our full attention.
In the story of Tobit, the call to wander from home is laden with much symbolism which expands as the narrative progresses. We note that it is a quest to reclaim funds, but not just any kind of money. Specifically it is silver which Tobit seeks which is no small detail of the fable. In allegory gold and silver are contrasted as opposites to represent male and female respectively. This kind of symbolism is ancient and ties in with the Asian principle of Yin and Yang whereby the sun or heat is rendered as masculine and the moon or cold is identified with the feminine. The search for the silver is then importantly the search for the feminine which bears out as the story develops. Theologically speaking, the feminine part of us is our soul which is in fact our emotional self and the part of us that makes contact with the material world. The journey is consequently about the purification of the soul through many challenging events along the way. We note as well that Tobias will travel to the East toward the land of the Medes. In this little detail we might also recognize that it is the direction of the sunrise and historically signifies the place of illumination and the dispelling of darkness which are central to this pilgrimage.
After he was informed about the trip he had to to take, Tobias had a number of reservations to contend with. He told his father that he didn’t know how to get to the destination. Neither did he know how he would recognize the debtor he was to collect from, and he questioned how he could prove that he was the authentic creditor. Tobit allayed his concerns about the last objection reminding his son of the promissory note which he took from Gabelus years earlier. This certificate was essentially the guarantee that the journey would be a success and it mirrors the fact that the spiritual transformation of every one of us will also be ultimately accomplished. The analog of this promissory note is the fragment of the divine that resides in all creatures, that small piece of God himself which is the sole driver of all interior progress and propels man slowly but surely upward. In this way, the promissory note can be compared to the words of the Apostle Paul who spoke of “a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance.”
Tobit was able to satisfy his son on this one matter, but the issue of finding his way to this distant land and actually locating Gabelus remained a problem. Unable to give him directions, Tobit suggested that Tobias hire someone to go with him to show him the way, a guide of sorts. So going out into the street, Tobias happened to find a young man (actually the angel Raphael in disguise) who explained that he was thoroughly familiar with the land of the Medes and knew Gabelus personally. So Tobias brought the young man to his father who was overjoyed to meet him. He encouraged Tobit predicting that his cure from God was at hand, and he assured Tobit that he would surely bring his son to Media and then back home safely again. Looking for a little more information, Tobit questioned the would-be escort about his family and was told that he was Azarias, the son of Ananias which impressed Tobit greatly. So Tobit gave his blessing on the excursion.
We should not be surprised that a companion appears on this journey to help show the way. What is certainly true is that none of us knows how to get to the place where we will find wholeness and serenity within. It is uncharted territory that we cannot navigate without someone leading the way. In so many myths, there is always a helper to go on the journey which represents this spiritual guide. In the tales of the American Indians it is often a totem, or animal spirit which directs the pilgrim but particularly in the bible and associated writings it is an angelic being that plays this role. Like the angel who appeared to Gideon to call him to battle against the Midianites, or like the angel who appeared to Hagar near death in the wilderness, angelic guardians are responsible for leading their charges toward God. For this reason, Tobias’ companion pledged that he would certainly bring him home again as it is the guide’s relentless duty to see the journey through until completion. That the author of the Book of Tobit was cognizant of the role of the angelic guide is evident also in the choice of names which he called himself to Tobit, for Azariah means “help of God.”
When Tobias and Azariah departed from his home, the narrative goes on to say that his mother Sarah began to weep and lamented, “You have taken the staff of our old age, and sent him away from us. I wish the money for which you have sent him, had never been. For poverty was sufficient for us, that we might account it as riches, that we saw our son.” Naturally we could commiserate with the old woman now bereft of someone to lean on and deprived of the joy of her only son, but this little vignette seems to have been inserted by the author to communicate something more. As has been pointed out, the feminine is normally associated with our lower nature or the negative side of our being. It is this part of us that is resistant to change. Whether out of fear or complacency, it would prefer to keep the status quo which it is familiar with and can control.
We may wonder that if the family of Tobit as a unit represents this one self that is about to embark on the journey of transformation that it should be the son who actually goes out on this adventure. Clearly Tobit himself was in no shape for a trip with his blindness, and ill-tempered Sarah needed to stay home and earn money. So Tobias was the only good candidate to go. While these external circumstances might dictate that the son make the trip, there is nonetheless some symbolic value in all of this. Tobias is of course the next generation, the product of his mother and father and in this respect represents something new and fresh and willing for change. He represents the forward progress of the soul which has learned from its past mistakes and is forging ahead to do better. So through the son will come redemption which perhaps even foreshadows the redemption of humanity through the Son of God. As the story continues, that latter typification comes into play again.
Only a day into the journey, climactic events begin to occur with Tobias and while in real life we should expect major developments to often take a lifetime, naturally in a short story those pivotal moments are squeezed into a few concise chapters to make the point. We are told that Tobias set out and a dog followed him and the party came the first night to the Tigris river where they planned to lodge for the evening. Tobias decided to go wash his dirty feet down at the water and was terrified when a monstrous fish came up out of the river to devour him. So he quickly called out to Azarias who told him to grab the fish by the gills and throw it on the dry ground. Then Azarias instructed Tobias to gut the fish and to curiously keep the heart, liver, and gall which would be useful medicines. This of course sparked Tobias’ interest and he asked how these organs could potentially be helpful. Azarias explained that if a piece of the liver were laid on some burning coals, the smoke from it would drive away any kind of devil that was plaguing someone. Furthermore he said that if someone who had eyes with a white film over them were anointed with the gall, he would also be cured.
At this point, it probably doesn’t take much imagination to know where the story is going based on what we have already learned from the text. That be as it may, let us consider the densely packed symbolism that is embedded in this short vignette, what is perhaps the very heart of the whole narrative. We have to begin with the mention of the dog which is a seeming afterthought. Appearing here and again at the end of the narrative, the animal has become so closely linked with the story over the centuries that “Toby” has become a traditional name for “man’s best friend.” We are informed that this is Azarias’ dog, and we can see this animal as an extension of Azarias’ own role not only to lead but also to guard and protect the pilgrim on the journey. Of course dogs have been historically sheep herding animals which guard the flock from wolves and other malevolent beasts. But the dog as an animal seems to have another significance within the party of three that has set out on the journey. We have departing from Nineveh an angel, an animal, and a man embarked on a trip. The image communicates to us something about that peculiar being we call man who is no longer an animal but is not yet an angel. His earthly journey is about transitioning from the world of brute beasts to the realms of celestial beings, and he is so often in deep internal conflict as he negotiates this rocky road. Tobias is here flanked on one side by his origin and on the other by his destiny, and he must somehow contend with those opposing forces within himself if he is to make progress.
When this motley crew finally arrives at the river, something akin to a cathartic experience ensues. There is a curious mention of washing Tobias’ feet, and what may come to mind are the cryptic words of Jesus to Peter: “Those who have had a bath need only to wash their feet; their whole body is clean.” What is about to happen to Tobias is then a comprehensive experience involving his whole being. We take note of the imagery in this scene and focus on the very important allusion to the river. Bodies of water have always been the perennial symbol of the subconscious or the unconscious mind which is now in play. In going down to the water’s edge, Tobias is about to confront very deep forces within that have been a source of his trouble for a long time. The fish that emerges is simply the crystallization of these unconscious thought patterns which must now be reckoned with. Deep within these subterranean waters of the mind lay unresolved issues, hostile emotions, and traumatic experiences that hold the soul hostage. Only by confronting them head on can one find resolution and peace from the turbulence that they create. The experience is frightening, and so Tobias seems threatened to be devoured by the fish, but this is only an apparent menace and not real. With a little reassurance from his guide, Tobias seizes the fish and slays it. Metaphorically he has conquered his inner self and all of its demons and devils. And yet something of no less importance has occurred in this climactic event, for Tobias in plumbing the depths of the unconscious has come to learn his true identity. Deep within these inner recesses of the mind is the knowledge of our true self, to which the soul while immersed in its material pursuits is completely blind. Finally in probing these depths it can at last “know itself” and “to its own self be true.” Consequently, the spiritual healing that takes place on the journey is inextricably linked to man’s subconscious mind wherein lies his problems but also his cures.
Many also see in this story a prefiguration of Christ in the fish. The Ichthys (or fish symbol) became a popular image of early Christianity often with the an acrostic inscribed in it standing for “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.” Here in the Book of Tobit, the fish which serves as a critical vehicle of the soul’s redemption may perhaps be linked to the redemption of mankind in general through Christ who came to save the world. Some commentators also draw parallels between this enigmatic fish that almost swallowed Tobias and the great fish that succeeded in gulping down Jonah. That story like this one has similar allegorical elements and may in fact be communicating the same basic ideas.
Azarias told Tobias that some specific organs from this fish carcass would be useful for medicine and considering what those organs do or what they have come to mean in popular language may shed some light on their significance. We first note that there is a parallel in what is prescribed here to the Mosaic sacrificial rituals. When an animal was slaughtered for an offering to God, its hide and its intestines which were considered of little value were incinerated outside of the camp, but particular choice organs were burned on the altar. One Levitical instructions says, “He is to bring a sacrifice made to the Lord by fire: all the fat that covers the inner parts or is connected to them, both kidneys with the fat on them near the loins and the liver which he will remove with the kidneys. Then Aaron’s sons are to burn it on the altar on top of the burnt offering that is on the burning wood, as an offering made by fire, an aroma pleasing to the Lord.” The fat that is mentioned here as a sweet smelling savor to God is a sign of excess and overindulgence in the life of one who has denied himself nothing and has chased after personal pleasure more than anything else. Its consumption on the altar signifies a certain transmutation of the earthly to the spiritual, a departure from the way of self-gratification for the way of self-denial. A metaphorical significance can also be given to the liver and kidneys when we consider that these are the very important organs of filtration in the body. They cleanse the blood of toxins and impurities that build up and excrete them out of the body. It is generally not good to eat these organs too frequently because they store up heavy metals and other toxins which are better off not ingested. Their consumption on the altar however represents the burning up of impurities in the soul which must be cleansed before one can achieve holiness, and in this is the medicinal value recommended by Azarias. The angel also told Tobias to set aside the heart, and perhaps that organ speaks for itself. Jesus had said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be.” It is among other things the place of our deep desires. In all writings, secular and spiritual, the heart is the repository of the deep yearnings and longings of man. It is the wellspring of all of our aspirations and hopes. It is what man is passionate about, and if these passions focus on material gain and sensory pleasures then the heart also needs to be purified, transmuted upon the altar into what is a “sweet smelling savor to God.”
The angel also told Tobias to save the fish’s gall, an instruction that seems even more cryptic than the other organs he was instructed to keep. Its significance appears less tied to any Mosaic ritual than it does to primitive alchemical ideas. Carl Jung who wrote an essay entitled, “The Fish in Alchemy” noted a few ancient texts which prescribed slowly roasting a fish until all of the fatness and moisture disappeared. At the culmination of the process a “yellowing” (xanthosis) would occur and “there is formed the eyewash of the philosophers. If they wash their eyes with it, they will easily understand the secrets of the philosophy.” Gall or what we more commonly call bile is a yellow substance which the author of Tobit likely connected to this ancient conception. The healing of Tobit’s eyes is consequently equated to comprehending all of the wisdom of the philosophers, something which we might say is characteristic of the purified soul.
With these “medicines” in hand, the narrative continues and Tobias asks Azarias where the party should lodge for the night now that all of the evening’s excitement is over. At this point, the author makes a connection for us to Sarah, the bewitched maiden of Rages in Media who has suffered the loss of seven husbands on her wedding night. The angel informed Tobias that they were going to the house of Raguel, Sarah’s father who was in fact a near relative. Additionally, Tobias was told that the wealth of Raguel was due to him and he was obliged to marry his daughter. The biblical concept of kinsman-redeemer comes into play in this part of the story. A close male relative was obligated to help his less fortunate kin when financial disaster struck or when a premature death left his family member childless. The latter is the idea of Levirate marriage whereby a man would marry his relative’s widow to not only give her financial stability but also to produce children to raise in the name of her dead husband.
Here Tobias is slated to be Sarah’s eighth husband, a scenario which terrifies him being aware of what has happened to her time and again. We are not informed how Tobias knew anything about Sarah prior to this point in the story, but he seems well aware of the danger involved in marrying her and rightly equates it with a death sentence. So Azarias needed to give him some encouraging words. He reminded him that he was now in possession of some potent medicines which would remedy the situation and reiterated that he need only burn a small piece of the fish’s liver on some hot coals which would drive the demon away and preserve his life. With some further admonitions to Tobias against lust, Azarias assured him he had nothing to fear and they proceeded to the home of Raguel.
When they came to Raguel’s house, they were warmly greeted and learned that he was in fact the cousin of Tobit implying that Tobias and Sarah were second cousins. This idea of kinship here in the story is not merely incidental, for the author wishes to establish a close connection between all of the main characters. As we have suggested, the family of Tobit is allegorically characteristic of just one typical individual on the journey of spiritual transformation. Each member of the family embodies a certain facet of that person, and so here we must also include Raguel and Sarah who are members of that extended family. As the principle female character, Sarah symbolizes the soul which is in the process of purification. The quest for the promised silver and for the hand of Sarah in marriage are in fact one in the same thing.
A feast was prepared when the visitors entered Raguel’s home, and before breaking bread Tobias asked to marry his daughter. This disturbed Raguel who feared he’d be burying another son-in-law; so he demurred. But Azarias reassured him, and delighted that a kinsman sought to redeem her sad condition, he finally consented to it. A marriage certificate was written and the family prepared the bridal chamber so that the marriage could be consummated. After dinner, Tobias was brought in to Sarah’s room and immediately burned a portion of the fish’s liver on some hot coals as he was instructed. Then the demon was bound by Raphael and taken to the desert of Upper Egypt.
So frequently in myth and fairy tale is the theme of the “damsel in distress.” We can think of many childhood stories like Rapunzel who was locked in a tower by an evil witch, or Snow White who was cursed to die by her wicked stepmother, or even Sleeping Beauty. In each of these time tested fables, a valiant prince comes to rescue the maiden, marries her, and the two live happily ever after. And so here in the Book of Tobit we have the same recurring theme which has transfixed both children and adults with a message that resonates at a very deep level. What is so captivating is that it represents the prize at the end of the spiritual journey, the reward at the culmination of a pilgrimage marked by fierce trials and hardships.
Here what is accomplished is the full redemption of the soul. Time and time again death had come to Sarah representing cycles of trial and failure that mark our earthly tenure. In each of these testings, the one on the journey learns from its mistakes and becomes stronger and wiser until it has finally mastered the game of life. Then it is no longer subject to the “power” of the Evil One who has been trying it. So the demon is metaphorically bound and sent away. In this particular story there were seven such cycles which of course implies a certain completeness or totality. Tobias who was the eighth husband consequently represents a new beginning and the start of a new whole life.
In keeping with the author’s intentions to avoid any hint of lechery, the narrative goes on to depict husband and wife praying together before the marriage bed. Tobias concluded the prayer saying, “O Lord, I am not taking this sister of mine because of lust, but with sincerity. Grant that I may find mercy and may grow old together with her.” Then leaving what happened next to the imagination, the vignette closes in propriety with the comment: “Then they both went to sleep for the night.”
The comsummation of marriage is here the high point of the story as it has been in so many charming tales throughout the ages, and this is simply because the bliss of marital love illustrates the ecstasy of the divine union the soul achieves when it has become purified and is now in great intimacy with God. For mankind, it is romantic love celebrated through song and theater and verse that signifies its highest aspiration of happiness, and so it is the appropriate resolution to all of the great myths and fairy tales which are a part of our collective consciousness. Moreover, the woman who brings children into the world and carries within her womb the mystery of life is in fact the symbol of life itself which the hero of the journey receives as his reward. So he comes to realize both life and love.
While Tobias and Sarah were in her quarters, Raguel fearing the worst ordered that a grave be dug during the night, for he wished to bury Tobias before daybreak. Then he sent a maid to check in on the couple in the bedchamber and was overjoyed to learn that the two were sleeping safe and sound. So he quickly ordered that the open grave be filled back in. Then Raguel prepared a great banquet for all of his friends and neighbors and bid Tobias remain with him for two weeks. So Raguel gave to Tobias half of his possessions and wrote a certificate promising the rest for his inheritance. Then Tobias asked that Azarias should take his promissory note and go to Gabelus to receive back the silver that had been loaned so long before. So Gabelus gave him the money and also came to the wedding banquet as a guest.
Right on the heels of the marriage festivities comes the reception of great wealth not only through Tobias’ father-in-law’s estate but through obtaining the coveted silver which had long been out on loan. Of course the author juxtaposes all of these important elements of the story because they are all tied together in the triumph of the soul. The wealth that now comes to the pilgrim at the end of the journey is not really anything that was ever outside of himself but represents what was latent within him all along but in a state of hiding. For this reason it is Raguel, the near kinsman of Tobias and part of his own family unit who safeguards this abundance which illustrates how this great fortune is really within oneself. Deep in the subconcious mind, it was God who deposited a great treasure just waiting to be discovered when the postulant had successfully negotiated the labrinth of life. Buried in the great recesses of its being, these riches are the untapped potential of the soul, its hidden talents and skills which are just waiting to be found and realized. It is the tremendous energy and vitality located at the core of our being which is yearning to be released. We recall from earlier in the story that it was the king who had given the silver to Tobit as a gift, and we understand this to be a metaphor for God who implants this great spiritual substance within us at the very start of the long journey. However, when we are just starting out and immersed in the ways of the world, this kind of money doesn’t do us any good and so it is symbolically loaned out as it was to Gabelus only to be reclaimed when it can be appreciated for what it is and utilized.
With the climax of the story passed, attention is turned back to Tobit and his wife Anna who have been waiting patiently for Tobias to return. When he didn’t come back on the day appointed, they began to worry and his mother began to weep fearing the worst. Tobit on the other hand took consolation in the character of Azarias and firmly believed he would bring him back to Nineveh. While Tobias’ parents were nervous back home, Raguel offered to send a messenger to Tobit to let him know about the marriage and the extended celebration that had detained him from returning on time. But Tobias fearing that his parents would be distressed insisted that it was time for his own departure, so he took Sarah his wife along with half of Raguel’s estate including servants, animals, and money and got on the road home again.
When the entourage was about halfway back to Nineveh, Azarias suggested that he and Tobias and the dog should hurry back to his father who had been anxiously waiting. So the three of them went ahead of Tobias’ wife and servants and animals which were moving slower. Tobias took the gall of the fish along with him, and Azarias instructed him that as soon as he should come to his father he should embrace and kiss him and then proceed to anoint his eyes.
Anna had been standing watch each day on a hill looking for her son, and on the day she saw him from a distance she ran back to tell Tobit who taking the hand of a servant ran stumbling to meet his son. The dog ran ahead to Tobit and was the first to greet him overjoyed, fawning and wagging its tail. When Tobias had finally reached his father, he embraced him and then proceeded to anoint his eyes which formed a white film over them. Then Tobias peeled it from his eyes and his vision was restored. After seven days the rest of the caravan arrived and they celebrated with a great feast for a whole week.
The return home again is a typical feature of the “hero’s journey” which is really a circuit involving the initial departure from the ordinary life, going forth into the unknown where transformation occurs, and then coming back to where one started from a changed person to positively impact the community and the world. The road back to where one started is no small part of the story, and it has been celebrated in ancient and modern works including The Lord of the Rings where after Frodo destroys the ring of power, he makes his way back to the Shire from which he came. Often connected with coming back home again is a feature of myth that we might call reconciliation with the father. This detail of the story is probably no better captured than in Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son where after the wayward son goes on his long journey from home to indulge in loose living, he comes to his senses and turns away from that self absorbed lifestyle. Upon hitting rock bottom, the Prodigal Son said, “I will arise and go to my father.” In humility and brokeness, the son ventured home and was embraced by his forgiving father who ran out to meet him.
This idea of paternal reconciliation has deep significance when we consider a basic psychological problem that the ancients were aware of. The tragedy of Oedipus Rex tells of how the main character unwittingly killed his father and then married his mother. More than just a fantastic story, it communicates the basic premise that at a deep psychological level, a son is in love with his mother and views his father as an interloper. The roots of these feelings stem from childhood and are in fact linked to the child’s earliest memories. Even from its time in the womb, the bond of the infant to its mother is strong. Its earliest memories revolve around her who has nurtured and caressed and comforted it from the beginning. Consequently, the child’s concept of beauty, purity, and truth all become linked to its mother. The father whom the child has not known so intimately is viewed as an intruder to the ideal sanctuary provided by the mother and is regarded as a threat to be removed or avoided.
In these kind of fairy tales that we are considering, the father is often presented as a metaphor for God whom the young soul regards as a harsh punitive tyrant. This is because early in the spiritual journey, one wants to go its own way and live life as it wants to live it without regard for the divine will. God appears as a threat to its agenda and goals in life, and so it perceives him as a monster to escape from, for his demands are onerous. This twisted conception of God is probably no better illustrated than in the account of the Israelites at Mt. Sinai after they had come out of Egypt. As they approached the mountain, they found it enveloped in thick darkness. Great peals of thunder and bolts of lightning accompanied the cloud that enveloped the peak. “Mount Sinai was covered with smoke because the Lord descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, the whole mountain trembled violently, and the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder. Then the people trembled in great fear and requested that the Lord not speak with them lest they should die.”
Once the soul has completed its journey of transformation and has abandoned its ego and submitted itself to the divine will, its disfigured perceptions of God evaporate like a mist that has long been shrouding the truth. It no longer sees God as an ogre to be feared but as a benevolent and merciful being that has lavished love upon it. So the son becomes reconciled to the father and is able to embrace the one that he hated and feared. In fact, it is only through the sublimation of the soul’s fears that it can in fact embrace God who also represents the invisible unknown. The child must eventually leave the comfort of its mother’s breast and venture out to find the father who is a mystery to it. Only through completing the spiritual journey, can the soul come to know God in whom both great joys and cruel tragedies coexist.
We should note here again near the end of the story the mention of the dog whom the author is happy to have join in this great reunion of Tobias with his father and mother. The parallel to Homer’s Odyssey is significant with the animal overjoyed and wagging its tail. When Ulysses had finally made it home to Ithaca after being away for 20 years, he came covertly at first not revealing his identity to the people of the city. Despite his attempts to remain unknown, there was one creature who recognized him right away. Ulysses dog Argus, at this time old and decrepit raised his head and pricked up his ears when he heard his master’s voice nearby. When he saw Ulysses standing in front of him, he dropped his ears and wagged his tail but unfortunately could not get up to greet his master. Nonetheless Ulysses observed the presence of his loyal dog who passed from life right after his owner’s return.
After this great reunion, Tobit considered how he should repay Azarias for so great a service rendered. He conferred with Tobias about it and they decided that the guide should be paid half of all the things that were brought back from Media. When they proposed this to Azarias they were shocked when he revealed to them his true identity. The angel revealed himself as Raphael and told Tobit that when he was performing all of his acts of piety years earlier, it was he who was offering up his prayers to God. Furthermore, it was because Tobit was found acceptable to God that it was necessary that he should be tested severely, and so the author clearly wished to portray Tobit in the tradition of Job. It is apparent that Tobit, like Job successfully passed the test of suffering and it was now time that everything should be restored to him that was taken away.
After Raphael revealed himself to them, he disappeared from their sight. In great awe of what just happened, Tobit offered up a prayer to God which echoes ideas and sentiments particular to Deutero- and Trito-Isaiah confirming that at least parts of the work date from post-exilic times. The prayer has a keen interest in the Gentiles which is characteristic of the later parts of Isaiah and betrays a deeper understanding of God’s plan in scattering his people among the nations, namely that the Gentiles should know about the greatness of God. Tobit’s oration anticipates the return of the captives to their native land and the rebuilding of the temple with gates of sapphire and emerald and walls of precious stones (Isaiah 54:12.) It foresees the Gentiles streaming to Jerusalem bearing gifts to worship God in that place (Isaiah 60.) In fact, when Tobit was on his death bed at the ripe old age of 102 years, he predicted to his family that the Gentiles would even live in Jerusalem, presumably cohabiting with the Jews which was certainly a very forward-thinking idea particularly for the time.
Tobit also predicted the soon destruction of the city of Nineveh where they abode. Historically the city was sacked by the Babylonians and the Medes in 612 B.C. which would fit within the timeline the author chose for the story. Tobit instructed his family to leave Nineveh immediately after the death of Anna to avoid being swept away in the decimation of the city. So after Anna’s passing, Tobias with his children and grandchildren returned to Raguel who was still living in Media and cared for his in-laws until they also died. The story concludes informing us that Tobias also lived to the ripe old age of 99. The author wishing to impress upon the reader the virtues of living a life of piety ends the narrative with what he envisions man’s highest goal to be, namely the approval of God: “And all his kindred, and all his generation continued in good life, and in holy conversation, so that they were acceptable both to God, and to men, and to all that dwelt in the land.”
So ends the Book of Tobit which many have sought to disregard because of its fantastic elements. Clearly a far fetched story such as this one couldn’t have much value to the earnest student of the bible, or so it may be thought. Perhaps if one wishes to get something out if it purely on a literal basis there will be disappointment, but as we have shown the story is much more complex than that. Like many biblical texts, it appears to be a work that was written and rewritten, amalgamated with different ideas from a variety of sources until the final compilation came down to us in the present form. It is certainly a composition of historical fiction which despite some inaccuracies offers a reasonable storyline. The contributors to the narrative seemed well versed in ancient literature for the story parallels some well known works of antiquity. But telling a good entertaining story was apparently not the ultimate intention of the composers who wished to communicate important moral teachings as well as Jewish theology and traditions which they desired the reader to uphold. Yet even this purpose was secondary to a rich allegory woven through much of the tale which drew from Jewish symbolism, Greek literature, psychological ideas, and certain universal principles that were known to the ancients. In this is the value of the Book of Tobit which relays to the reader the story of the soul as it navigates through the challenges of life toward God.