The Gospel According to Tobit
The Book of Tobit is no less than the venerable and Holy Gospel of Jesus Christ.
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 to this, we are treated with some of the best parental advice ever given, a theology on angels (specifically, archangels), a prelude to Christ’s sermon on the Mount of Olives, and much, much more.
As a result, it is not at all surprising that the rabbinical, post-Christian Jews would have this book stricken from their Scriptural canon in later centuries. 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—was the Messiah, the prophesied “Anointed One” of Israel.
Tobit (the father) 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 was involved). Given over to sadness and grief, Tobit becomes a little testy at this time, and annoys his wife Anna with his attitude. Her gentle rebuke leads him to repentance and a prayer of sorrow:
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.
Book of Tobit 3:2-6
At the same time Tobit was praying (and even asking to be taken to Hades to be relieved from the pains of this life!), a girl named Sarah in the land of Media was also praying to God for assistance. She had been married seven times, and all seven men had died on the night of their wedding! She was the scorn of even her own parents and, as a result, thought to be cursed by death and an evil demon named Asmodeus. She too considered death/suicide, but turned 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.
Book of Tobit 3:15
And then, the kicker: We are told that the Archangel Raphael had heard both of their prayers, and was sent from the presence of God to “heal the two of them” (Tobit 3:16).
The next day, Tobit sends his (only) son Tobias on a journey to Media in order to collect some silver that Tobit had previously entrusted to his friend Gabael. Before Tobias departs, Tobit gives his son a few words of advice (just in case he dies before Tobias returns). Perhaps no greater words have ever been spoken by a parent to their child. I will share just a few excerpts, but I would encourage anyone to read them in their entirety (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.
Book of Tobit 4:3-19
Not only do we find this wisdom repeated elsewhere in Holy Scripture and in the writings of the Fathers, but also many gems such as the so-called “Golden Rule” are seen in seed form in the advice: “What you yourself hate, do not do to anyone.”
And so, Tobias was off into the wilderness in order to collect his father’s silver. As part of his agreement with his father, Tobias hires along a companion for the journey: the Archangel Raphael in disguise as a man named “Azarias.” When they arrived at the Tigris River, Raphael has Tobias take certain parts of a fish and store them for future use. As they continued 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 as the previous seven husbands had! However, Raphael eases his mind and convinces him that if he trusts in the Lord (and the words of his father to marry a woman from among their people) and burns the incense of the fish’s heart and liver, he will be spared.
When they met with Sarah’s family, they were welcomed with joy and open arms as they learned that Tobias was the son of Tobit (a man their family knew and loved). They even killed a ram and sheep and set many dishes before them. Tobias and Sarah are married, and they burned the incense and prayed together to God before going to sleep for the night. Sarah’s parents were still worried, however, so they dug a grave for Tobias! However, when they learned that they were both still alive after the night’s sleep, they filled in the empty grave—Tobias, in his marriage to Sarah, had overcome death through the power of the Lord. As a result, a great wedding feast and banquet was prepared, and they celebrated for fourteen days (twice the normal length).
In the mean time, Raphael had gone to Rages of Media to collect the silver from Gabael for Tobit. When this task was complete, Raphael, together with Tobias and Sarah, departed in order to return to Tobit. They hurry in their return and Tobias uses the gall of the fish to cure Tobit of his blindness. Both Tobit and Anna are overjoyed and relieved to find Tobias alive and well, and with his new bride, and they rejoiced before the Lord in song and prayer. Tobit is also so extremely pleased with Azarias (Raphael) that he calls for Tobias to give him half of everything they had 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.
Book of Tobit 12:6-9
Once again, the importance of almsgiving is made clear (similarly to Christ in the Gospels), along with fasting and righteous living. 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.
Book of Tobit 12:12-20
And this, of course, is how we came to have the Book of Tobit—and what a blessing it is!
It is interesting to note the fact that Raphael states he brought their prayers before the “Holy One” (a reference to Christ; cf. the demon in the Gospel referring to Christ as “the Holy One of Israel”), that he was “present with” Tobit when he was performing funeral rites for the dead (prayers for the departed?) and that he is one of the “seven holy angels” (archangels), just as the Orthodox Church teaches (also seen in the Book of Enoch, which is not canonical except for Christians of Ethiopian tradition).
In the end, Tobit exalts the Lord with a great hymn of both prophecy and thanksgiving. It is again too much to quote here in its entirety, but I would encourage you to grab a copy of the Septuagint and read it for yourself. Of note, Tobit speaks of the coming apostasy of Israel and the inclusion of the Gentiles as God’s chosen 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.
Book of Tobit 13:10,13
In addition to this, Tobit speaks of the coming “new Jerusalem,” in the same way as we read about it in St. John’s Apocalypse centuries later:
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.’
Book of Tobit 13:17-18
Again, it is no wonder that books such as Tobit have been removed from the later Jewish canons, in favor of the writings of the Talmud and the wisdom of the rabbis. The Book of Tobit is replete with the commandments and wisdom of God as well as the typological story of God’s Messiah—the only Son who is sent by the Father to redeem a Bride from death. It was no doubt a great scandal for the Jews during the early ages of the Church to have this book and others like it “used against them” in order to prove that what the Christians believed about Jesus was true—that He was the Anointed One of Israel, the one, true Messiah.
Vincent Martini has a BA in Philosophy from Indiana University and is an Orthodox convert / layman in the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America. He resides in northwest Arkansas.