Another Dead Husband? Not Today, Satan!
Tobias and Sarah finally beat the demon Asmodeus, Raphael binds him up tight, and we discuss Tobit’s surprising appearance in Sherlock Holmes. Covering Tobit 7.1–8.18.
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Sherlock Holmes and the case of the serial widow
Is a demon from the Bible behind the deaths of a beautiful woman’s first three husbands—and will Sherlock Holmes be the next to die? That’s the set up for a radio show that first aired March 1945.
The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, a popular American radio series, was in its fifth season. This, episode 75, was written for radio not by Holmes’s famous creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but by Edith Meiser. It starred Basil Rathbone as Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson—both famous in their day for playing the detective duo in many films and radio shows.
“The Book of Tobit” has Holmes and Watson on the case of the strange deaths connected to a former magician’s assistant, Lady Dianna Venering, who seems to have no luck with marriage. She’s been widowed twice on her wedding night—and now her third fiance is standing trial for the murders.
At one point in the story, the clergyman who officiated at her first two weddings approaches Sherlock and Watson. “Are you familiar with the Book of Tobit?” he asks.
Yes, Holmes answers. “I think the Venering case closely resembles the case of the woman Sarah in the Old Testament story.”
“More closely than you realize, Mr. Holmes.”
As they discuss the strange case, they note that the victims had each received a threatening letter before the weddings.
“Signed with some sort of gibberish,” says Watson.
“No doctor,” says the pastor, “the apparent gibberish was actually ancient Hebrew writing. . . In effect, it said, ‘If you go through with this marriage, your hours are numbered.’ It was signed Asmodeus.”
Holmes excitedly responds, “The name of the jealous demon who strangled husbands in the Book of Tobit!”
“Precisely!” says the pastor.
Two dead husbands: And each one received a threatening letter prior to his death signed by none other than Asmodeus. With Lady Venering about to get married a third time, Holmes suggests taking the role of Raphael to act as a protector for the bride.
Any observer would anticipate that Lady Venering would end up on the hot seat herself. Instead, her next suitor comes under suspicion and is in fact on trial for the murders. Alas, he too, after marrying Lady Venering in secret, ends up dead—the same day that Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are brought onto the case.
Now, with Holmes on the case what else is there to do but—plot twist!—marry the woman himself!
Our Raphael suddenly becomes our Tobias, smitten by Lady Venering like Tobias was smitten by Sarah. But now that Holmes is playing a deadly game, will he become the fourth dead husband? Watson starts to think Sherlock has lost his marbles, and worries that his friend may not “escape the jaws of death” or “the clutches of matrimony.”
You can listen below and find out how Holmes comes through.
And now for our own battle with the demon. Today’s passage takes Tobias to Sarah’s house and into the bridal chamber to face Asmodeus for himself.
Family reunion (Tobit 7.1–9)
When they make it to Ecbatana, Tobias gives Raphael a nudge. “Brother Azariah, take me straight to our brother Raguel,” a.k.a. Sarah’s dad.
Like another famous entertainer of angels, Abraham, Raguel is waiting by the courtyard door—a detail that would have sparked recognition for any faithful Jewish reader. Raguel eagerly welcomes the pair inside.
Tobias, evidently the spittin’ image of his dad, immediately reminds Raguel of Tobit. And after a little conversation it emerges these two travelers are family from Nineveh and know their far-off family member.
“Do you know our kinsman Tobit?” asks Edna, Raguel’s wife.
“He is my father!” says Tobias and lets them know that dad is in good health. Which seems a little odd, because of course he’s not.
And it turns out staying upbeat was for nothing. Word gets around. People back home know Sarah has had seven husbands, and in the long version of the text (GII) Raguel already knows Tobit is blind and impoverished. If you’re reading from the short version (GI), Tobias tells him. Either way, Raguel embraces Tobias and weeps.
Everybody else at this impromptu reunion also begins crying. (There are a lot of big criers in this book.) Then Raguel shifts back into host mode and slaughters a ram while everyone else settles in for dinner.
Specifically, the narrator says they “bathed and washed themselves and . . . reclined to dine.” The words here denote thorough washing. Jewish customs developed over time, but priestly ceremonial washing eventually spread to the people. By the time Tobit was written such customs were common among Jewish people (see episode guide 4).
Washing was definitely widespread by the time of Christ (see Mark 7.3) and carried on into Jewish medieval practice. In his book, The Paleo Manifesto, John Durant says Jews got sick at lower rates than other groups in medieval Europe. Because they stayed healthier while people around them died, suspicious neighbors sometimes unjustly blamed Jews for plagues.
Proposals before appetizers (Tobit 7.9–14)
And here’s where Sarah’s marital status comes into play. Tobias wants to make his move and tells Raphael to intercede with Raguel on his behalf. Raguel overhears and lets Tobias know that he’s amenable to the match—in fact that Tobias is the only man for his daughter. But then he also lets him know about the situation.
“I have given her to seven men of our kinsman,” he says, “and all died on the night when they went into her.” But Raguel doesn’t dwell on the grim statistic long. “But now,” he says, “eat and drink, and the Lord will act on behalf of you both.”
Would Tobias hear in that “eat and drink” another resonance: “for tomorrow you die”? If so, he is undeterred by the prospect—or the prior suitors’ batting average. He’s also unmoved by Raguel’s invitation to feast. Tobias first wants to get the marriage squared away. And so we have a hasty courtship managed before appetizers hit the table.
Raguel agrees to give Sarah to Tobias as his wife “in accordance with the decree in the book of Moses.” He says, “she is given to you from today and forever. May the Lord of heaven, my child, guide and prosper you both this night and grant you mercy and peace.”
They draw up a marriage contract on the spot. And with the main question settled, Tobias finally feels free to eat and drink.
Bridal chamber preparations (Tobit 7.15–8.1)
The men are clearly eating by themselves because Raguel calls his wife from another place in the house. He tells her about the marriage and instructs her to prepare the bridal chamber—and the bride.
Once face to face, Edna cries for her daughter. It’s not clear what Sarah is feeling, but she must have been shaken too. After wiping away her own tears, Edna tells her daughter to take courage. “The Lord of heaven grant you joy in place of your sorrow. Take courage, my daughter.”
The men continue eating and drinking while the women make preparations for the wedding night. Given what’s to come, we can only hope Tobias has taken seriously his dad’s advice in chapter 4 to go easy on the booze. Nothing blows a wedding night encounter—with bride or demon—like too many glasses of whathaveyou.
For her part, Sarah is already in the room waiting for Tobias. When the men finish eating and drinking they bring Tobias to her room.
The demon bound (Tobit 8.2–3)
So here we have Tobias facing the same fate that befell seven other men. Asmodeus—who has killed seven prior suitors—is waiting along with Sarah. But Tobias is ready.
According to the text, Tobias walks into the room with Raphael’s instructions on his mind. He seems to have immediately pulled the fish liver and heart from his luggage and put them on the fire. Embers already burn, awaiting incense. With two or three weeks to dry out en route, the organs begin smoldering immediately. The stench, says the narrator, “so repelled the demon that he fled to the remotest part of Egypt. Raphael chased the demon down and bound him hand and foot.”
The binding reminds of other biblical passages in which demonic figures are bound. The term, in fact, works like technical language indicating that the demon has become powerless.
A scrambled story? (Tobit 8.4–9)
But in many ways it feels slightly anticlimactic. We’ve been waiting for this moment ever since chapters 3 and 4. And the action is over in two verses. But there might be more going on here because the story also feels a little scrambled.
For one thing, the very next verse (4) seems to say that Sarah’s parents were still in the room. Strange they didn’t say anything when Tobias dropped fish innards on the fire.
Also odd, Tobias and Sarah are already in bed. The narrator says, “Tobias got out of bed and said to Sarah, ‘Get up. Let’s pray and implore our Lord that he grant us mercy and safety.’” But there’s no need to implore. The demon is already bound.
It feels as if there is one continuous action but the narrator has broken it into two parts. As a result we get one resolution at the end of verse 3 and another at the end of verse 9—but there’s really only one action sequence here, not two.1
Taking the existing elements and rearranging them slightly, here’s how we might rework the scene for Netflix if we were Paul Schrader and Martin Scorsese (see episode 6). Take it for what it’s worth.
An imaginative reconstruction (Tobit 8.1–9)
Start with verse 1. Tobias and Raguel are dining and Edna comes to tell them everything is prepared. Sarah is waiting in the room, and they bring Tobias to her.
Though the text says nothing about it, some sort of ceremony or ritual may have been conducted at this point (more on that below). The parents turn to leave as Tobias and Sarah slide into bed.
And now jump right over verses 2 and 3 to verse 4. As the parents close the door behind them, Tobias leaps to action. He jumps out of bed. “Sister,” he says, “get up, and let us pray and implore our Lord that he grant us mercy and safety.”
Back to verse 2: Tobias has Raphael’s instruction in mind and knows he must act fast. He grabs his bag to retrieve the fish liver and heart. Asmodeus is likely already in the room. It is time for the Lord to act.
Sarah slips from bed to join Tobias (verse 5). He’s already standing by the brazier, placing the dried organs on the embers. Smoke rises as he begins to pray:
Blessed are you, O God of our ancestors, and blessed is your name in all generations forever. Let the heavens and the whole creation bless you forever. You made Adam, and for him you made his wife Eve as a helper and support. From the two of them the human race has sprung. You said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; let us make a helper for him like himself.”
It’s worth a pause here to mention that Adam and Eve get minimal treatment in the Bible and mostly negative. But here they’re portrayed positively. “In this story, Adam and Eve are married role models, not negative exemplars,” say Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Brettler in their book, The Bible with and without Jesus.
They go on to say, “This positive view of Adam and Eve continues in the Jewish tradition. One of the seven blessings recited at a traditional Jewish wedding begins, ‘Bring great joy on these loving friends, as You gave joy to Your creations in the Garden of Eden.”2
I now am taking this kinswoman of mine, not because of lust, but with sincerity. Grant that she and I may find mercy and that we may grow old together.
Now we can jump back to verse 3, because while their prayer ascends like incense, the lurking Asmodeus has caught a dreadful whiff. “The odor of the fish so repelled the demon that he fled to the remotest parts of Egypt. But Raphael followed him, and at once bound him there hand and foot.”
Tobias and Sarah end by saying, “Amen, Amen,” and we can imagine the prayer punctuated by the chains that bind Asmodeus.
Then again, maybe that’s giving the devil more than his due; the narrator was intentionally anticlimactic and the action was broken in to bits intentionally, not because the text was somehow corrupted or scrambled. Either way, the narrator tells us, “they went to sleep for the night.”
Significance of the bridal chamber
Tobias’s encounter in the bridal chamber is one that has long provoked Christian imagination because of its parallels to Jesus.
Tobias: (1) presents himself as the bridegroom; (2) enters bridal chamber to battle demon; (3) enters bridal chamber to claim his bride; and (4) exits the bridal chamber alive.
Jesus: (1) presents himself as the bridegroom (Matthew 9, Mark 2, Luke 5); (2) enters into death to bind the devil; (3) enters death to claim his bride; and (4) exits the grave alive.
Tobias’s emergence from the bridal chamber becomes a picture of the resurrection. It’s one of the many ways Tobias becomes a type of Christ in Christian reflection. Catholic biblical scholar Brant Pitre draws this out in his book, Jesus the Bridegroom. He quotes St. Augustine:
Like a bridegroom Christ went forth from his nuptial chamber . . . He came even to the marriage-bed of the cross, and there, ascending it, he consummated a marriage.3
The imagery of bridal chambers has further resonance for Orthodox Christians, who refer to the bridal camber in the prayer before the Eucharist in the Divine Liturgy. I (Jamey) asked Fr. Lucas Christensen about this prayer and its significance to the Eucharist.
“The bridal chamber was not necessarily merely where the couple consummated their marriage,” Fr. Lucas writes, “but may have also been where the wedding ritual itself took place.“ Though unstated, that seems to be what happens in our story. The groom is brought to the bride in the chamber with the expectation that consummation follows; whatever ritual was enacted must have happened then and there.
Fr. Lucas continues:
It’s almost impossible for us to understand, but in the late antique world, (married) sex and sexuality did not have anything like the stigma it has for us now. In fact, the bridal chamber as place of consummation may have been set up in a shared dwelling, simply curtained off for . . . privacy. It’s essential that we understand the whole embarrassment/shame aspect surrounding (married) sex and sexuality is a really recent intrusion into our consciousness and is foreign to Christian thought (and in Judaism before it).
So, not only is there the sense that the bridal chamber is the place of the wedding, but also that consummation is the true physical and spiritual union of the bridegroom (Christ) with his bride (the Church). The Eucharist has just such physical consummation aspects and language surrounding it in our tradition, and the language of “one flesh” is absolutely essential to Eucharistic theology as we both become partakers of Christ and also become the very incarnation of Christ’s body.
Of course, not everyone expected Tobias to emerge from the bridal chamber alive. And what follows is one of the more comical moments in the entire book.
The unnecessary grave (Tobit 8.9–18)
Unlike the newlyweds, Raguel has not gone to sleep. He has gone to bed, but his brain is buzzing with thoughts of the horrors likely underway next door. While he hopes “the Lord will act on behalf of you both,” he also knows that you can end the “eat and drink” sentence with “tomorrow you die.”
Raguel is nobody’s fool. He has seen this story before. He fears the worst and sends his servants outside to dig a grave for Tobias. Humorously, he’s worried about the neighbors as much as anything. “It is possible that he will die and we will become an object of ridicule and derision.”
Raguel joins the diggers outdoors. You can imagine him leaning over the slowly growing hole in the ground, counting the hours till sun-up. Shovel faster, boys! He wants to bury Tobias before dawn before anyone finds out what happened.
Tsk, tsk. Can you believe it? They lost another one!
When the grave is finished, Raguel has Edna send a maid to sneak in the bridal chamber and see if Tobias is alive or dead. The maid cracks open the door, creeps inside, and finds—surprise!—the couple sleeping undisturbed.
She reports Tobias’s good health and Raguel blesses the Lord for having compassion on these two only children. One verse deserves special attention here. Verse 16:
Blessed are you because you have made me glad. It has not turned out as I expected, but you have dealt with us according to your great mercy.
Then, amusingly, the narrator informs us that Raguel ordered his servants to quickly fill the grave. Wouldn’t want Tobias to see it when he wakes up. Imagine having to explain that one.
Coming next week . . .
We discuss the role of women in Tobit and the book’s role in weddings. We also rejoin the action as Raphael retrieves Tobit’s money, Tobias and Sarah celebrates, and a domestic squabble erupts back in Nineveh, delightfully enough.
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See, for instance, the comments in Carey A. Moore, Tobit (Doubleday, 1996), 237; and Robert J. Littman, Tobit (Brill, 2008), 125.
Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, The Bible with and without Jesus (HarperOne, 2020), 123.
Brant Pitre, Jesus the Bridegroom (Image, 2014), 93. See his whole discussion in chapter 4.