Undercover Angel: Raphael to the Rescue

Tobit hires a companion for Tobias and gets far more than bargained for. We turn to Tobit 5.4–6.1 and also explore what kind of book Tobit is: history, wisdom, fiction?

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What kind of book is Tobit?

In our last episode, we talked about Tobit’s last will and testament. His advice calls back to Solomon’s fatherly advice in Proverbs, and the content and feel is reminiscent of Jewish wisdom literature in general. How did early readers receive the book? 

There are indications in two early collections, Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus. But the evidence is mixed. Sinaiticus places the book with other historically themed books. Meanwhile, Vaticanus squeezes it between the wisdom literature and the prophets.1

Today, scholars would say that it’s neither history nor wisdom literature. It’s more like a novella—historical romance, perhaps blending folk tales and traditions into a new work. There are a number of historical and geographical inaccuracies in the text that argue in favor of this view. Writing an edifying tale centuries after the events in question, the author was seemingly less concerned with nailing the details than presenting a moving and memorable story. It’s worth saying there are readers who still vouch for Tobit’s historicity; personally, we see no reason to insist on that.2

That said, wisdom does play a strong role in the book. Tobit presents a moral world that maps exactly to what we see in the time of Jesus and the apostles. The tone and content matches the needs of Jewish readers in the Second Temple period.

The purpose of wisdom lit

The composers, compilers, and transmitters of Jewish wisdom literature had spiritual and ethical formation in view, especially as these books were read and spread in the Second Temple period. Often separated from temple life and the religious rhythms of Israel, Jews in this time found themselves under the sway of the Greek culture that dominated the Mediterranean world. Jews needed direction and encouragement to stay true to their faith rather than slowly give ground to Hellenism’s cultural hegemony.

Against these pressures stood Israel’s wisdom literature. A prime example, the Book of Ecclesiastes, parades the futility of human wisdom before the reader and concludes that only God’s wisdom is real and profitable. Ecclesiastes, says Biblical scholar Paul Tarazi, “is the message to the congregation(s) of nascent Judaism confronted with Hellenism, warning them not to forget the Law.”3

Same for Sirach. The book’s original audience were Palestinian Jews confronted by Hellenism in the early part of the second century before Christ. It was later translated into Greek by Sirach’s grandson and read by Diaspora Jews facing even more rigorous expressions of Greek culture. The intention of the author and translator is, according to Tarazi, “to emphasize the importance of the torah at a time when Hellenization had been threatening to undermine it. . . .”4

That’s exactly what we see in Tobit, who one writer goes so far as to call “Deuteronomy incarnate.”5 Both Tobit’s words and deeds vouch for the label; he earns it and by doing so presents an example for readers of his story.

How well did wisdom literature perform against its intended purpose? St. Paul gives us a powerful witness to its effectiveness. Here’s a diaspora Jew well versed in Greek literature—he can quote pagan poets off the top of his head—yet devotion to the faith of his people was undiminished by any sort of cultural erosion. 

The Book of Tobit slides into that same cultural jetstream and offers readers the same sort of inoculation. And that means it’s time to pick up our story.

Help for the journey (Tobit 5.4–8)

We left Tobit telling Tobias about a stash of cash in Media in the city of Rages. Tobit left ten talents of silver there. It’s a long journey, but all Tobias has to do is go claim it. Tobit instructed Tobias to “find . . . a trustworthy man to go with you,” and Tobias went out to find such a man. 

Who should show up but Raphael? We introduced Raphael in the episode before last. He’s the angel who heard and delivered Tobit and Sarah’s prayer to God. He’s also the angel who God dispatched to solve all their problems. How? Evidently, by going incognito.

Tobias, says the narrator, “went out and found the angel Raphael standing in front of him; but he did not perceive that he was an angel of God.” This calls to mind later passages like Hebrews 13.2, “entertaining angels unawares.”

Reading into the image, some fathers saw this disguise as a picture of the incarnation. Said St. Bede in his commentary on the book:

An angel appeared to Tobias and offered himself as a companion through whom he might perform wonders for the people to whom he had been sent. And the Son of God assumed the nature of a human being so that, thus visibly spending his life with human beings, he might save the human race.6

Upon meeting Raphael, Tobias conducts a hasty job interview. He mentions the job and checks out his qualifications. Raphael says he knows the way to Rages, and interestingly, this is where one of the inaccuracies mentioned above creeps in.

Raphael recommends they stop over in Ecbatana on the way to Rages. “It’s a journey of two days from Ecbatana to Rages,” he says. Checking a map, however, shows a distance of over 200 miles between the cities—on foot this is more like a ten-day journey. Evidently, angels can pick up the pace when they need to!

Then again, the real importance of Raphael’s statement is not cartographical. He mentions Ecbatana because that’s where Sarah lives, and Raphael’s job is to knit our two storylines together. 

A wink and a nod (Tobit 5.9–10)

Tobias and Raphael strike a tentative agreement, and the young man runs off to get his father’s approval. Tobit wants to interview Raphael as well. The exchange starts off sour. “Joyous greetings to you!” says Raphael, only to hear Tobit lament his plight. “Although still alive,” he says, “I am among the dead.”

Raphael takes the gripe as an opportunity to tip his hand, at least to us, the readers. “Take courage,” he tells Tobit, “the time is near for God to heal you.” It’s a little wink and nod. Raphael’s name means “God heals.” He then assures Tobit that he’s the man for the job. “I know all the roads,” he says, “for I have often gone to Media and have crossed all of its plaines, and I am familiar with its mountains and all of its roads.”

Then he misdirects.

Can angels lie? (Tobit 5.11–14)

Tobit asks about his family and tribe. At first Raphael holds back. “Why do you need to know my tribe?” he asks. But Tobit insists and Raphael says something that is not strictly true. “I am Azariah,” he says, “the son of the great Hananiah, one of your relatives.” This misdirection has twisted readers into knots over the years.

Can angels lie? In a sense there’s no lie. If this is a work of fiction, we’re all in on the ruse. Besides, Raphael’s name and his pseudonym, Azariah (“God helps”), indicate the deeper truth of the matter.

Further, as Geoffrey Miller points out in an article on the matter, there are examples from holy scripture in which God’s messengers misdirect as part of their mission. But Miller also raises a more interesting possibility, one which pairs well with the shift underway toward a more personalistic, individual-oriented expression of faith observable in this period (see the last episode guide on this shift).

Failing the test

Miller shows through Tobit’s words and his conversation with Raphael that he’s overly focused on retrieving the money and maintaining the appearance of tribal loyalties. It’s a fixation, not faith, in play. He never, for instance, asks any follow-up questions to confirm that Raphael knows anything about the roads, even though that’s the primary reason for employing him.

In fact, Tobit says very little until hearing about Raphael’s family connection, at which point he rattles on for almost eighty words. Says Miller, “Tobit is not thinking enough about his son’s welfare because he allows himself to be distracted by peripheral matters: the money . . . and Raphael’s genealogical pedigree.”

Seeing a critical appraisal of Tobit here might strike some readers sideways. But don’t forget, this is the same Tobit who assumed his wife, Anna, was a thief when hearing the bleating of her goat. He may have righteous intentions, but his judgment is subpar. There is blindness at work beyond Tobit’s lost eyesight.

Since the narrator is playing with some of the same themes as Job, we shouldn’t be surprised to see Raphael testing Tobit. Miller says that’s exactly what the lies are about. The misdirection is a test, and Tobit fails—at least initially.7

But rest assured. There will be another chance after their journey is over.

‘May his angel . . . accompany you’ (Tobit 5.15–17)

Tobit eagerly agrees to pay Raphael a drachma a day plus expenses—money he really doesn’t have—to go with Tobias to retrieve his fortune. It’s a gamble, but he’s confident it’ll pay off. “Prepare supplies for the journey and set out with your brother,” he tells Tobias. “May God in heaven bring you safely there and return you in good health to me; and may his angel, my son, accompany you both for your safety.”

Little does he know!

As we discuss in the episode, there’s a Russian tradition to add “May your guardian angel go with you” to farewells and goodbyes. I (Jamey) make it a practice to say it when wishing people well in their travels. And there’s a traditional Orthodox prayer for travel that relies on this theme from Tobit.

O Christ, who art the way and the truth, send now thy guardian Angel to go with thy servants, as once thou didst send him to Tobias, and for thy glory keep them safe and sound from all harm and evil by the prayers of the Mother of God, O thou who alone lovest mankind.8

Sad but sensible Anna (Tobit 5.18-6.1)

Meanwhile Anna is not happy. As Tobias says his goodbyes, Anna breaks down in tears. “Why is it that you have sent my child away?” she asks Tobit. “Is he not the staff of our hand as he goes in and out before us? Do not heap money upon money, but let it be a ransom for our child. For the life that is given to us by the Lord is enough for us.” Anna knows her way around the sunk-cost fallacy. Let’s quit while we’re ahead, she’s saying.

Miller points out that while Tobit failed, Anna has passed Raphael’s test. “Responsible parenthood is demonstrated,” he says, 

by Anna, who serves as a foil to her husband in this episode. Tobit does not have his priorities straight, and his wife’s rebuke highlights his oversight. She is content to live in poverty as long as Tobia[s] is safe. . . . Tobit could benefit from his wife’s advice, not only because she puts family and money in proper perspective but also because she trusts in God’s providence, something Tobit failed to accept earlier. But Tobit will not listen to her, nor does he recognize the angel’s tests. He is blind both literally and figuratively, unable to see what truly matters.9

Tobit tries to console Anna. He assures her Tobias will be fine and adds a humorously ignorant but accurate consolation: “A good angel will accompany him.” With that, Tobias and Raphael—the answer to all their prayers—hit the road.

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Coming next week

In our next episode, we’re joining Tobias and Raphael on the journey. We’ll see what lurks under waves of the Tigris river, and what bright idea Raphael has in mind for Tobias in the marriage department.

We’re also going to spend a little time untangling some terminology. Depending on who you talk to, the “bad” books of the Bible go by all sorts of names. What do words like apocrypha, deuterocanonical, and pseudepigrapha mean? We’re going to look at the history behind these terms and their use.

Bonus article

Phillip J. Long, “Tobit: Remembering the Covenant,” Reading Acts, January 28, 2017: “The book of Tobit would be an encouragement to Jewish readers living in the Diaspora to remain faithful to the covenant God gave to Israel. God still remembers his people even when they are living in exile and he will bless them when they remain ‘wholeheartedly mindful of God.’ This may have resonated with early Christianity who sometimes described itself as ‘exiles’ in this world (1 Peter 1:1).”

1

You can compare Sinaiticus and Vaticanus online.

2

See, for instance, Taylor Marshall, “Defending the Book of Tobit as History,” TaylorMarshall.com, March 5, 2012.

3

Paul Nadim Tarazi, The Old Testament: An Introduction, Vol. 3: Psalms and Wisdom (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1996), 134.

4

Tarazi, Old Testament, Vol. 3, 144.

5

Daniel J. Harrington, Invitation to the Apocrypha (Eerdman’s, 1999), 13.

6

Quoted in Sever J. Voicu, ed., Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Vol. 15 (InterVarsity Press, 2010), 14.

7

Geoffry D. Miller, “Raphael the Liar: Angelic Deceit and Testing in the Book of Tobit,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 74.3 (2012).

8

A Manual of Eastern Orthodox Prayers (SPCK, 1945; St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1983), 24–25.

9

Miller, “Raphael the Liar.”