The Book of Tobit is one of the strangest books of the Bible. In my opinion, it might be the strangest, which is quite the distinction, considering the divine bear attack in 2 Kings and the first century streaker in Mark. In writing about this deuterocanonical gem, I have two tasks, one simple and one difficult. The first task is the simple one, and that is to show you why I think the book is strange. I call this the simple task because the Book of Tobit is so “unique” that a summary should suffice. The second task is the difficult one, and it is to show you why I think a book that I have already proven is a bizarre standout even by biblical standards means something to me today.
Now, for our first order of business, a simple summary: The Book of Tobit tells the story of the pious Israelite Tobit and his faithful son Tobias who live in exile with their respective wife and mother, Anna. Tobit suffers greatly for refusal to assimilate and his adherence to the Law of Moses, and is finally struck blind (literally, and by bird dung). But Tobit’s luck begins to change when he lashes out at his wife in an (again, literal) blind rage. He is overcome with remorse for his temper, and prays to God for assistance. Meanwhile, a young girl named Sarah cries out to God in desperation, asking freedom from the murderous demon that kills all of her suitors out of love for her. Always prudent with manpower, God decides to answer both prayers with Tobias.
A business concern sends Tobias out into the world to retrieve money from a kinsman, and God sends the disguised angel Raphael to be his guide. Accompanied by Tobias’s loyal dog, the two make their winding way across the desert and to the banks of the Tigris. They lay down to rest by the river, letting their feet graze the surface. When a fish emerges from the mud of the riverbed to nibble on Tobias’s toes, Raphael directs him to catch it, gut it, and preserve all the pieces. Continuing on their way, Raphael takes Tobias on a detour to pass Sarah’s home. Raphael tells Tobias about Sarah and informs Tobias that he has a right by relation to marry Sarah. But, Raphael warns, be careful: Before sleeping with Sarah, Tobias must place some of the fish guts on the bedroom lamp and pray with her. Despite the inanity of these unorthodox directions, Tobias carries them out just as he is told and drives the demon from Sarah, because demons do not like the smell of burning fish innards (the more you know). Sarah’s father is so overjoyed that one of his daughter’s suitors survived to become her husband that he throws a two-week party, during which Raphael continues on to carry out Tobias’s business and retrieve his father’s money. After the party is over, Tobias’s new family (dog included) and Raphael return home to Tobias’s elderly parents, who are now concerned for him because of the two-week delay. Father, mother, and son reunite joyfully while they welcome Sarah to her new home. Before the real celebration is set to begin, Raphael directs Tobias to rub the other half of the fish intestine on his father’s eyes. Miraculously, Tobit regains his sight. Overwhelmed with gratitude, Tobit offers Raphael half of his income from the deal. The angel refuses, and instead reveals his identity and tells Tobit and Tobias to always praise God before disappearing into the heavens.
As you can see, the book has a lot of disparate elements. The first few chapters read like wisdom literature, with Tobit’s pining and Job-like lamenting of the suffering of the faithful. However, the middle of the book is similar to the journey of Abraham’s servant to find a wife for Isaac. In addition, Raphael’s disguise and revelation, with groveling and ascending to follow, is reminiscent of the stories of other angels incognito that abound in the Torah and biblical histories. All of these seeming incongruities are clearly evident and remarkable. But the most remarkable thing about the story, and in my opinion the best part of the Book of Tobit, is the puppy.
Dogs get a bad wrap in the Bible. In Proverbs they are known to eat their own vomit, and in 1 Kings they are known to eat nasty queens. But the dog in Tobit is different. From the moment Tobias leave home until the moment Tobias returns, his dog follows patiently at his heels. He never squeals, bites, or “sicks”; he just follows along meekly and peacefully inhabits the background of the book. In other words, he is a perfect biblical “good boy.” But why is he the only biblical good boy? The answer may be anthropological: The Book of Tobit was written much later than either Proverbs or 1 Kings (it probably dates from the late second century B.C.), so perhaps it was the only book written after dogs made the transition from savage animal to companion, from man-(and vomit-)eater to man’s best friend. However, this is the Bible, and I am a Christian, so I will never be satisfied with something so bland as an historical explanation alone. I believe that this canine character has a far greater significance than providing us with a possible marker of the timeline of domestication in the ancient Near East. Above and beyond domestication, Tobias’s furry friend is important because he is domestic, and because he follows his master doggedly.
The only two times that this dog is mentioned are at Tobias’s dramatic departure and homecoming in chapters 6 and 11. Even to one who has not taken a single college English class, this fact signals an important connection. Fido (as I like to call him) is brought into the scene only when Tobit and Anna are embracing their son, only when Tobias is experiencing the love of his family in a tangible way. Just like his parents, this dog is a part of Tobias’s warm domestic experience. But unlike Tobias’s parents, who might be said to exemplify Israelite piety or the virtue of hope in addition to their tender presence, the dog has no other actions in the book and therefore no other associations. To employ an animal metaphor, he is a one trick pony. Although all this talk of “other associations” and “one trick ponies” may convince some that Fido is a minor character, this evidences convinces me that Fido is a totem of the homey love that abounds in Tobias’s family—the importance of his presence is immense.
As I said before, Fido is not mentioned during the journey. Of course, we as readers know the little fuzzy friend accompanies Tobias, even if the author does not draw attention to him, just as we are aware that Tobias’s long suffering parents are still at home where Tobias left them. The significant thing is that we know the dog is there with Tobias, and we know that Tobias’s parents are there without Tobias. We know that the dog, as a member of the loving clan and a symbol of the love itself, trudges after Tobias and keeps his connection to home always before his eyes, at his heels, and in his heart. Fido is the biblical equivalent of that cartoon classic, the arrow-through-the-heart “MOM” tattoo: An external symbol of Tobias’s love and (I believe it safe to infer) longing for home. For a college student three states divorced from my own home, family, and beloved Fido(s), this is why this story is important to me. It is a reminder that a righteous man does not need to be an island. The moral of the story is that a hero can walk forward with confidence, put his trust in the Lord, and vanquish demons with fish livers all while missing his mom just a little bit. And in all honesty, don’t we all miss our moms, just a little bit?
Tess Fitzsimmons ’19 is a sophomore in Lowell House.