Under the Gaze of God & Angels
The Meaning of Tobit for the Christian Reader
by Patrick Henry Reardon
My earlier study of the Book of Tobit drew attention to the high level of symbolism and allegory that some medieval Latin writers employed in their interpretation of that story, and I contrasted their approach with the sober, more literal and direct sort of exegesis that the Fathers of the Church found sufficient for a full Christian reading of Tobit.1 In the present study I propose to examine Tobit’s moral and ascetical teaching, which, as I suggested earlier, corresponds to the book’s major interest and importance. Because the theology of the Book of Tobit is chiefly concerned, I am persuaded, with the relationship of God’s Providence to the prayers of pious people, I intend to pursue this study under three headings: prayer, piety, and Providence. In doing so, I hope to show likewise that this is the very approach taken by the Fathers of the Church in their specifically Christian reading of Tobit.2
After the first two chapters of Tobit have set the stage on which the book’s drama is to be enacted, chapter 3 is of special importance for its description of the simultaneous prayers of Tobit and Sarah. The sentiments of these two believers in a common hour of darkness and despondency are strongly reminiscent of the prayers of Moses (Numbers 11:15), Elijah (1 Kings 19:4), Job (7:15), Jonah (4:3,8) and Baruch (1:15–22; 2:4; 3:8), but the scene in Tobit is even darker. This is the only place in all of biblical literature in which two people, simultaneously, pray to die.
First, there is Tobit’s emphasis on simultaneity. Though separated from one another by a great geographical distance, the two characters both make that common prayer at exactly the same hour. Tobit and Sarah prayed “on the same day” (3:7) and even “at the very time” (3:17).3 If the Book of Tobit were performed as an opera, the two prayers would constitute a duet.4 Their structure and general contents were similar, as well, not only with reference to the afflictions and the common desire to die, but also in their shared emphasis on the acclamation and praise of God’s works.5 Albeit unwittingly, then, the hearts of Tobit and Sarah were united in prayer on earth.
But prayer likewise unites earth to heaven, and in the Book of Tobit this joining of heaven and earth especially has to do with the ministry of the angels. Prayed simultaneously down below, the suffrages of Tobit and Sarah are also heard up above at exactly the same time.6 Indeed, the very same angel, Raphael (“the healing of God”), receives their petitions together as a common offering in the presence of the Holy Glory (3:16; 12:12). When believers pray “under the gaze of God,” Tertullian was to write a few centuries later, there is standing with them “the angel of prayer.”7 In prayer, then, Tobit and Sarah are united not only to one another but also to the powers on high.
Near the end of the book Raphael identifies himself as “one of the seven holy angels who present the prayers of the saints and enter into the presence of the glory of the Holy One” (12:15). The very last book of the Bible will take up this image, speaking of these “seven spirits who are before his throne” (Revelation 1:4; 4:5).
A further comparison between Tobit and the Book of Revelation is instructive here. In the latter, seven trumpets are given to the seven angels that they may announce the righteous judgments of God. These trumpets are integral parts of the heavenly liturgy; when the prayers of the saints are offered as incense before God, there are immediate repercussions on the earth (Revelation 8:3–5). The blowing of the seven trumpets by the seven angels then announces God’s intervention in history on behalf of his righteous ones. Chapter 3 of Tobit serves a very similar function in the structure of that book. All of the events narrated in the remainder of the story are a response to the twin prayers offered at the book’s beginning.
Tobit abounds in further references to prayer, including numerous short prayers, especially fleeting expressions of blessing, from almost every character in the story. Chapter 8 contains the fervent benedictions (berakoth) of Tobias and Raguel in response to the heavenly intervention that saved the former and his new wife on their wedding night, and in chapter 11 there are several benedictions associated with Tobias’s return and the recovery of Tobit’s sight. The entire chapter 13 is a lengthy berakah celebrating God’s merciful interventions well beyond the dimensions of the narrative itself. The whole story of Tobit is permeated with prayer.
It is not just any prayer, however, that availeth much, but the prayer of the righteous man (James 5:16). Biblical prayer is normally part of a larger moral picture corresponding to “fear of the Lord,” that devout attitude and style of life that the Greeks called eusebia and the English tradition, following the Latin pietas, calls “piety.”
I use the word “piety” in this context to include such components as sustained spiritual effort, godly struggle with the demons, self-discipline, vigilance over one’s thoughts, restraint of the passions, continuous striving for purity of heart, fasting and other physical restrictions, deeds of charity, the strenuous cultivation of the virtues, the fulfillment of one’s duties toward others, and so forth.8
Tobit was, above all else, a man of piety.9 A font of wisdom and sound instruction to his son,10 he was a model of good works and mercy,11 generosity,12 disregard of human opinion,13 and, indeed, of all the virtues.14 Tobit was particularly remarkable for his patience.15 Severely tried by various difficulties and afflictions, he maintained this patience, even while being ridiculed by a wife unable to understand his devotion to God.16
In its description of the moral and ascetical life the Book of Tobit draws particular attention, however, to the standard triad of prayer, fasting, and (to simplify our translation for now) almsgiving (12:8).17 This triad comes as no surprise to Christian readers. Because prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are authoritatively juxtaposed by the Lord himself in Matthew 6:1–18, it is normal for us to think of them together and as constituting a kind of ascetical standard. In truth, for a very long time Christians have habitually spoken of the three together as a sort of paradigm.18
In pre-Christian biblical literature, however, that specific triad of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving is found in only one place: Tobit 12:8. Thus put together, nonetheless, this threefold cord, not easily broken, soon passed into both rabbinical19 and Christian ascetical doctrine as a kind of norm. Among Christians it became a matter of routine to cite Tobit when appealing to this inherited triadic standard.20
Having already treated of prayer in Tobit, it remains for us to consider the other two elements in that triad: fasting and almsgiving. First, fasting. Except for his delaying meals occasionally to bury the dead (2:1–5), the story of Tobit does not elaborate his method and habit of fasting. We may justifiably surmise, nonetheless, that this discipline included both the annual observance of Yom Kippur and the weekly fast days of Monday and Thursday.21
The Book of Tobit has a great deal more to say about the subject of eleemosyne. Since this word is the etymological root of our English word “alms,” we normally translate it as “almsgiving.” At the time of Tobit’s composition,22 however, eleemosyne conveyed a more general meaning that included all sorts of gracious deeds done for the sake of the needy. Used in only one place in extant pagan Greek literature,23 eleemosyne became a term of great importance in late Jewish piety, particularly in the Diaspora. Those Jews living abroad, not having regular access to the Temple worship, were obliged to find some substitute way of offering sacrifice. Sacrificial service to the poor and needy provided such a way.24
Nowhere in biblical literature is the importance of eleemosyne more evident than in the Book of Tobit, where the word appears with greater frequency than in any other book of the Septuagint or, indeed, throughout the entire New Testament.25 Eleemosyne includes everything that Tobit did in selfless service to his fellow man: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, housing the homeless, burying the dead, etc.—all those activities encapsulated in the Last Judgment scene of Matthew 25 and later known as the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. Eleemosyne was thus Tobit’s most characteristic mark.
Since the word is used of him far more frequently than of any other character in the Holy Scripture,26 Tobit became the supreme model of eleemosyne for Christians. He repeatedly exemplified that quality in every aspect of his life. Moreover, he explicitly taught its supreme value when he declared that “eleemosyne delivers from death” (4:10). So important was that message that the line is later repeated by Raphael himself (12:9), and Christians took the pronouncement to heart. Beginning in the second century with Polycarp of Smyrna, this double statement from the Book of Tobit was to become a matter of standard and principle in the ascetical and moral literature of the Christian Church.27
Like the rest of Holy Scripture, the Book of Tobit knows that all things on earth are governed from on high. Heaven has a plan. Raphael proclaims this truth explicitly with reference to the projected marriage of Sarah and Tobias when he tells the latter that his future wife “has been allotted to you from eternity” (6:18).28 Then, in the following chapter, Raguel returns to the same theme, telling Tobias that “it is a judgment from heaven that she should be given to you” (7:12).29
However, the development of God’s plan is, at least from a human perspective, a matter of some complexity. That is to say, the earthly realization of heaven’s decree requires the coming together of seemingly disparate and improbable components, including misfortune and suffering. In the case of the marriage of Tobias to Sarah, for example, the unfolding of God’s Providence involves even the work of a demon; when Asmodeus killed her seven earlier bridegrooms, he was actually saving Sarah for Tobias!
The historical complexity of God’s Providence is indicated by the use of the word “road” or “way” (hodos) throughout the Book of Tobit. As we would expect in the story of a journey, the word appears rather frequently, though in plural nearly as often as singular.30 When it is first introduced early in the story, hodos seems to have solely a moral sense: “I, Tobit, walked in the ways of truth and righteousness all the days of my life” (1:3). Its repetition, nonetheless, serves to tie the whole story together, simultaneously pointing to the secret activity of God’s guiding Providence; God has his ways.
Thus, in that same chapter we are told that Tobit could not return to Media during the reign of Sennacherib because the “ways (hodoi) were unsafe” (1:15). This circumstance, of course, directly serves the development of the narrative, inasmuch as it causes the lengthy delay in the recovery of the money. Had it not been for the apparently haphazard conditions of the ways at that time, young Tobias would not have made the journey exactly when he did, nor would the rest of the tale be tied together as it is.
That motif is sustained throughout the account. The whole story is directed by the Lord whose “ways are mercy and truth” (3:2). It is important, therefore, that young Tobias walk in those ways (4:19 in B) and not stray into some other ways (4:5). So, one prays that his ways be properly directed (4:19 in B).
In response to that prayer, therefore, an angel is sent to be Tobias’s guide in chapter 5. Raphael certainly knows the way to Media (5:6).31 Hence, Tobias’s way will prosper (5:16 and 22). In the next chapter they start on this way (6:1 in B), and the rest of the story unfolds. Each day of their absence, however, Tobias’s mother goes out to watch the way that they had gone (10:7; 11:5). Tobias, on the other hand, already knows that his way has succeeded (11:1 in B) and will eventually tell that to his father (11:15 in S).
Just as angelic intervention had delivered Lot from Sodom and led the Chosen People from Egypt to the Promised Land, so the way of Tobias is guided by “an angel of peace, a faithful guide, a guardian of our souls and bodies.”32 Thus, the Book of Tobit becomes one of the major biblical sources for the Christian doctrine of the Guardian Angels,33 that special ministry that the Liturgy of Saint Basil lists among the means by which God continued to provide for humanity after the Fall. To this day, therefore, Raphael is regularly mentioned right after Michael and Gabriel as a providential representative to God’s people at key points in the economy of Salvation.34
As a loyal guardian, moreover, Raphael had all along been present in Tobit’s life—when he prayed, when he buried the dead, when he delayed his meals, and so forth (12:12–14).
Except for the intrusive mission of Raphael, however, the heavenly governance of earthly events in Tobit is a matter of considerable secrecy. Things just seem to happen. A series of unforeseen circumstances, apparently tied together only very loosely, leads to the old man’s blindness, and it seems to be merely happenstance that Tobit and Sarah are praying simultaneously, and evidently the fish in chapter 6 would have attacked just about anyone on the banks of the Tigris that evening, and so forth. But all these things are tied together to form the fabric of God’s providential design for the benefit of those who love him.
Human plans are subsumed into a divine plan. For example, the original purpose of Tobias’s trip, the recovery of the cash, becomes a mere afterthought by chapter 9, when Raphael is sent on to retrieve it and then bring Gabael back as a wedding guest. Whatever Tobit had intended at the beginning, God had his own secret reason for that trip to be made. The events in the story invariably contain secret dimensions beyond the ken of the various human characters.
The readers of Tobit always know more than the actors in the story. Only the readers, for example, perceive that the prayers of Tobit and Sarah are offered at the same time and are received by the same angel. Similarly, when Tobias returns, the watching Anna espies only her son with the companion and dog who had left with him. She has no idea that a large caravan is not far behind. Indeed, even the directly ab extra activity of Raphael is known only to the reader, not to the other characters in the drama.
Hence, the recourse to irony on the part of a narrator intent on drawing the reader’s attention to the secret workings of Providence. For example, in chapter 5 there is the irony of Tobit who, like Abraham in Genesis 18, Gideon in Judges 6, and the parents of Samson in Judges 13, receives an angel “unawares.”35 Even without knowing Raphael’s true identity, nonetheless, Tobit twice unwittingly makes reference to a “good angel” who will accompany his son on the journey. Likewise, at the end of the trip, Tobit blesses God’s “holy angels” (11:14), without yet knowing Raphael’s identity.
Nearer the end of the narrative, there is further irony in Tobit’s question about the protraction of his son’s journey: “Is it possible that he has been detained?” (12:2) Once again, the reader is supposed to perceive an ample and gracious meaning in the words beyond anything of which Tobit was conscious. Ever concealed in subtlety, Providence is fitly conveyed by irony.
The Greater Will of God
Prayer and providence are especially tied together. The Book of Tobit is chiefly concerned with the relationship between Divine Providence and the prayers of pious people.
A major example of the book’s irony is the transcendent way in which God answered the petitions of Tobit and Sarah. Seeking to be delivered from their grievous afflictions, both had prayed to die. While this specific request was denied to them, their prayers were nonetheless answered in a way that transcended the explicit terms of their request. God’s answer to prayers, in Tobit, is not restricted to the details and shortcomings of those prayers. His Providence responds to prayer by subsuming it into a larger, more gracious care.
One occasionally finds the petition “thy will be done” regarded, even by Christians, as a sort of restriction placed on the boldness of prayer, as though indicating that a believer must be prepared for his prayer not to be heard. In the Book of Tobit the very opposite is true. Here we see heaven answering prayer by going beyond the human limitations of that prayer. The divine will to which believers properly submit all their petitions is a larger and more generous will.
Tobit thus provides a grand illustration of the truth that “we know not what we should pray for as we ought” (Romans 8:26). God’s Providence is not restricted to the deficiencies of man’s prayer, so that Raguel seems to speak for the whole company when he says, “It did not happen to me as I expected” (Tobit 8:16). “Thy will be done” is not a narrowing of prayer, but a broadening of it.
In the New Testament the supreme illustration of this truth is found in the petition of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, asking that the cup of the Passion might be taken away. His qualification “yet not my will but thine be done” does not indicate, as is sometimes supposed, that he was prepared for God not to answer his prayer. In what is perhaps our earliest extant reference to that scene, the Epistle to the Hebrews explicitly says that his petition was heard (5:7). He was delivered from the powers of death. The Resurrection and glorification, the entire economy of Redemption, was God’s larger and more gracious response to that prayer.
The dereliction, the pain, and the prayer of Tobit and Sarah, then, point to the mystery of the Cross. When, at the end, Tobit could say to God, “Thou hast afflicted me, but thou hast had mercy on me” (11:15), he was already adumbrating the joy of Pascha. The scales had fallen from his eyes. He had gained a deeper insight into the foolishness of God that is wiser than men, and a firmer hold on the weakness of God that is stronger than men.
1. Cf. “The Wide World of Tobit,” Touchstone 12.2, March/April 1999.
2. We have received Tobit in two major manuscript traditions so disparate that Rahlfs’s standard edition of the Septuagint prints them separately. Because I will frequently refer to them, I take this occasion to identify the two earliest extant manuscripts, both of them from early fourth-century Egypt: the Codex Vaticanus (hereafter B) and the Codex Sinaiticus (hereafter S). Because of its importance to Latin writers, I will also refer often to Tobit’s Vulgate text, translated by Jerome from both Greek and Aramaic sources.
3. More emphasized in B, which has en avto to kairo; S reads only “at that ( ekeino) time.”
4. The two prayers, each 5 verses, are of about equal length, a feature that also serves to emphasize their simultaneity. By way of speculation, it is not difficult to reconstruct an arrangement of those prayers in either Hebrew or Aramaic so that both have exactly the same number of words.
5. “All thy works”— panta ta erga sou—vv. 2, 11. Sarah’s prayer is explicitly a berakah: “Blessed art thou. . . .”
6. This was noted by Hippolytus, In Danielem 1.27f. (BHP 6.34); Origen, De Oratione 11.1 (BHP 10.249); 31.6 (304); Augustine, Epistolae 129.9.18 (PL 33.501).
7. Tertullian, De Oratione 16.6 (CCL 1.266).
8. I deliberately prefer the word “piety” over the more recent term “spirituality,” as the latter generally tends to be rather hazy and subjective, involving little or no attention to the traditional emphasis on discipline ( askesis) and discernment ( diakrisis).
9. On pietas as a trait of Tobit, cf. Pontius of Carthage, Vita Cypriani 10 (PL 3.1549C); Ambrose, De Tobia 1.3 (PL 14.760A); 2.6 (761C); Leo the Great, Tractatus 10 (CCL 138.43).
10. Cyprian, De Opere et Eleemosynis 20 (PL 4.617); Augustine, Libri Confessionum 10.34.52 (PL 32.801A).
11. Cyprian, Testimoniorum Libri 3.1 (PL 4.728–729).
12. John Chrysostom, In Hebraeos 9.4 (PG 63.81); 13.5 (109).
13. Augustine, De Divinis Scripturis 30 (CSEL 12.446).
14. Isidore of Seville, De Ortu et Obitu Patrum 98 (PL 83.146B); and later, Adam the Scot, De Triplici Genere Contemplationis 3.6 (PL 198.824D).
15. Ambrose, De Tobia 1.2 (PL 14.760A); also, much later, John of the Cross, Cantico Espiritual 36.1 ( Obras, p. 878).
16. Cyprian, De Mortalitate 10 (PL 4.588); Asterios Sophistes, In Psalmos 4.4 (BHP 37.170); Augustine, Sermones 88.15.15 (PL 38.547); Peter Comestor, Historia Libri Tobiae 1 (PL 198.1433C); Peter Damien, Sermones 4.5 (CCM 57.20).
17. The mention of fasting in this verse is found in B and the Vulgate, both representing textual sources that determined the tradition on this point. Therefore, the omission of “fasting” from Tobit 12:8 in S is a curiosity that need not detain us.
18. Already in the second century, Hermas of Rome, Pastor, “Vision” 3.9–10 (BHP 3.47f.); “Similitude” 5.3–4 (72f.); and Second Clement 16.4 (BHP 1.46). Other examples include John Chrysostom, In Matthaeum 57.4 (PG 58.563); In II ad Timotheum 6.3 (PG 62.633); Leo the Great, Sermones 12.4 (PL 54.172–173); and Maximus the Confessor, Capita de Charitate 1.79 (PG 90.977C).
19. Cf. the sources cited in Strack-Billerbeck, Kommentar zum Neuen Testament aus Talmud und Midrasch, Vol. 1, Munich, 1922, p. 760.
20. Thus, Tobit is cited in this respect by Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis 6.13 (BHP 8.216); Origen, De Oratione 11.1 (BHP 10.250); Cyprian, De Opere et Eleemosynis 5 (PL 4.606B); Dionysius of Alexandria, Catena in Ecclesiasten 11.1 (CCG 24.183); the Homilary of Toledo 57 (PL Suppl. 4.1970).
21. The origins of the latter Jewish custom are hard to determine, but we do know that it preceded Christianity; cf. Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 24a; Ta’anit 2.4–7; Christian references to it include Didache 8.1 and Luke 18:12.
22. Scholarly consensus dates the work in the second century B.C., roughly contemporary with Daniel, Maccabees, and Sirach.
23. Diogenes Laertius, Vitae 5.17, where it appears in an apophthegm ascribed to Aristotle. Given the absence of that word in classical Greek otherwise, and bearing in mind the several thorny problems inherent in both the source material and the manuscript tradition of Diogenes’ work, I am instinctively suspicious of this text. More curiously, the word is found in neither Philo nor Josephus.
24. The New Testament likewise employs the language of sacrifice to describe gifts and offerings generously given to the needy or on behalf of the ministry; cf. Philippians 4:18; Hebrews 13:16. Theognostos of Alexandria later speaks of the “sacrifice of almsgiving” (thysia tes eleemosynes); cf. Thesaurus 17.9 (CCG 5.179).
25. In Tobit, B has it 20 times, and S 13 times. The next closest count is in Sirach (Ecclesiastes), where it is found 13 times. Outside of these two books, eleemosyne is found only 23 more times in the whole Septuagint, and only 13 in the entire New Testament.
26. In the Septuagint eleemosyne appears in only two narrative sections outside of Tobit: in Genesis 47:29 on the lips of Jacob (with reference to his burial!), and twice in Daniel. In the New Testament it is predicated of Tabitha (Acts 9:36), Cornelius (10:2,4,31), and the Apostle Paul (24:17).
27. Polycarp, Ad Philippenses 10.2 (PG 5.1013–1014) (the earliest extant Christian quotation from Tobit, by the way); Cyprian, Ad Antonium 2.2 (PL 3.987B); Theognostos of Alexandria, Thesaurus 7.7 (CCG 5.31); Didymus the Blind, De Trinitate 26 (PG 39.765); In Psalmos 54 (PG 29.1408); Ambrose, Epistolae 63.16 (PL 16.1194A); Expositio Evangelii Lucae 5.60 (CSEL 32/4. 205); 7.101 (325); John Chrysostom, In Philippenses 4 (PG 62.212); Homilia 6 de Precatione (PG 64.461); Augustine, De Divinis Scripturis 23 (CSEL 12.409); Sermones 128.5 (PL Suppl. 2.517); Leo the Great, Sermones 10.2 (PL 54.165C); Epiphanius of Benevento, Interpretatio Evangeliorum 20 (PL Suppl. 3.853); 50 (931); 53 (939); Abbess Caesaria, Epistola ad Richaldam et Redegundim (PL Suppl. 4.1406); Haymo of Halberstadt, De Varietate Librorum 2.30 (PL 118.904B); Ps.-Augustine, Sermo Caillau-Saint-Yves 1.4 (PL Suppl. 2.908).
28. Here I am arbitrarily following S, where the verb “to allot,” merizein, accentuates the divine sovereignty. In B the wording is “she was prepared ( hetoimasmene) for you,” which suggests rather God’s development and unfolding of the plan.
29. Literally, “it has been judged,” kekritai, the Greek perfect tense indicating a past action with lasting results. Once again, I am sticking with S here; the sentence is missing in B.
30. Fifteen times in B, 10 in singular, 5 in plural; 19 times in S, 10 times in singular, 9 in plural (and one of these by a later hand).
31. S is particularly insistent on this matter in chapter 5, using the word 9 times. Although the distance to Rages was nearly 200 miles and very much uphill, a second (and therefore later) hand in S also introduced the surprising information that the journey required only 2 days (5:6). Eschewing undue speculation here on the velocity of angelic travel, this detail is truly odd, particularly when we recall that the swift army of Alexander the Great needed 10 days to march the same distance (cf. Plutarch’s Lives, Alexander 42). Whatever the significance of this interpolation in S, it represents, like the wagging tail in Jerome’s Vulgate, the inventiveness and creativity in which a Christian copyist felt free to indulge when transmitting the Book of Tobit.
32. The “companion angel,” sent to guide the saints on particular journeys, is also a theme showing up from time to time in Christian hagiography; e.g., St. Eustathius I of Serbia, in Daniel Rogich, Serbian Patericon, Volume 1, St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1994, pp. 34f.; and St. Alexander of Svir, in The Northern Thebaid, p. 115.
33. Also Daniel 10:13,20f.; 12:1; 2 Maccabees 11:6; 3 Maccabees 6:18; Matthew 18:10; Acts 12:15.
34. E.g., Dante, Paradiso 4.46–48:
35. Surely the Book of Tobit is among the texts that the author of Hebrews 13:2 had in mind.
The substance of this article appeared in Epiphany, 1996.
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