The Tragic Duet of Tobit and Sarah
Why would two biblical characters pray to die—and how would God answer that petition? It only happens once in the entire Bible but has much to teach us. Tobit 3.1–17.
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Old School Rotten Tomatoes
If you wanted to know how popular a story was in the ancient world, you couldn’t pull up Rotten Tomatoes or check the Amazon rankings. There were no published besteller lists. And magazines and blogs were still a couple thousand years away from offering literary listicles.
No, circulation signaled a book’s popularity. To produce a work in large numbers back when all books were hand copied—especially in multiple translations—indicated significant use and widespread appreciation.
Scholars have cataloged more than two dozen ancient manuscript copies of Tobit in nine languages: Greek, Aramaic, Hebrew, Latin, Syriac, Ethiopic, Coptic, Armenian, and Arabic. Several Aramaic manuscripts—one dated a hundred years before Christ—and one Hebrew copy were found among the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Some of these languages offer more than one version of the book. There are, for instance, three distinct Greek versions. The long Greek form of the book—which we mentioned in the last issue—was basically lost until 1844 when Constantine Tischendorf found a copy at St. Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai. Before then, the shorter version predominated.1
Still going strong
There was major momentum behind the book. Tobit in whatever version was copied and recopied throughout the classical period and into the medieval era. Writers and homilists returned to it time and again. Printers included it in their Bibles. And the book proliferated in the early modern era. Illuminators, painters, engravers, and sculptors have long been drawn to the story, offering striking takes on scene after scene.
The book makes suprising appearances well into the modern era, too. There’s a reference to it in Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March. Salley Vickers wrote an acclaimed novel in which the story features: Miss Garnet’s Angel.
What accounts for this level of popularity? One of the reasons is its message. Despite being a simple story about a singular family in a far-off land, its themes resonate through the centuries. It’s a universal story, offering a feeling of solidarity and hope in a world that never stops asking, “What good is goodness when everything is so bad?”
That question is more or less where we left off last week.
Tobit prays (Tobit 3.1–6)
Having been brought to ruin and without a response to his wife’s complaint, Tobit does what most anyone would do: He breaks down, weeps, and prays.
He starts by extolling God. “You are righteous, O Lord, and all your deeds are just; all your ways are mercy and truth; you judge the world.” He then asks the Lord to remember and have mercy on him, recalling not only his own sins but those of his ancestors—which is, of course, why he’s stuck in Nineveh to begin with.
We mentioned the theme of sin and exile in our last issue as well. That theme jumps to the foreground in Tobit’s prayer. “You gave us over to plunder, exile, and death,” he says before admitting they had it coming. “Your many judgments are true . . . for we have not kept your commandments. . . .”
Such a prayer demonstrates remarkable humility on Tobit’s part. Despite his horrible circumstances and no evidence of personal guilt, he does not reach for self-vindication. Instead, he throws himself on God’s mercy.
Tobit offers a model prayer in many ways. “Now deal with me as you will,” he says. But most of us wouldn’t finish this prayer ourselves. While abandoning himself to God’s will, Tobit—echoing Job—is pretty sure he’d be better off dead. And so he concludes by saying, “It is better for me to die than to live . . . Command, O Lord, that I be released from this distress. . . .”
And then the scene shifts. Shortly before Tobit prays for death, miles and miles away in Ecbatana, the world’s unluckiest bride is being upbraided by a servant girl.
Seven grooms for one bride (Tobit 3.7–9)
It’s hard to imagine Sarah as anything other than cursed. A classic black widow character, Sarah has wed seven men. But one after another, each groom was murdered on their wedding night by the demon Asmodeus.
As the bodies mount, people grow suspicious. Some can’t buy Sarah’s story at all. And this is where we meet the hapless heroine—in the middle of a squabble with the household staff in which her innocence is challenged. “You are the one who kills your husbands!” says an angry maid. “Why do you beat us? Because your husbands are dead? Go with them!”
As you might imagine, this is bigger than an HR crisis for Sarah. Her hopes have turned to vexation, her dreams to ashes. All the while the people point the accusing finger at her and then tell her, basically, to die and go to hell. And how’s your day going?
It’s likely, by the way, Jesus and his interlocutors knew this story. When the Sadducees try to stump him with the story of the woman married seven times, there’s a good argument they were thinking of poor Sarah and her ill-fated grooms.2
Same song, second verse (Tobit 3.10–15)
And so Sarah finds herself brought to the same place as Tobit. She’s innocent of wrongdoing but is experiencing grievous wrong. What’s more, she believes there are no more kinsmen she might marry. Bereft of a future in which her seven suitors fade from memory, she will be forever defined by this present reality—a grim world of stolen hopes and unfounded accusations. All the good in her life has been taken, and death seems like the only way out.
Sarah contemplates suicide but, not wanting to trouble her family further, thinks twice. “It is better for me not to hang myself,” she says, “but to pray the Lord that I may die and not listen to these reproaches anymore.”
And so she prays. Like Tobit, she begins by extolling God for his mercies. But then she shifts to her hopeless state. “Why shold I still live?” she asks and pleads, “Command that I be released from the earth.” And this, as Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon has pointed out, is the only place in all of holy scripture where two characters simultaneously pray for their own demise.3 (There’s more to the synchronicity and complementarity of their prayers; see Reardon’s quote below.)
God answers and—spoilers! (Tobit 3.16–17)
One of the most intersting moments in all of holy scripture happens right now. Separated by miles and miles, unaware of the other’s plight, seemingly disconnected in every practical and earthly way, Tobit and Sarah’s prayers simultaneously ascend before the throne of God. “At that very moment,” says the text, “the prayers of both of them were heard in the glorious presence of God.”
What was that like? We can picture the heavenly scene by looking at another book. In the eighth chapter of Revelation, John sees seven angels standing before God.
Another angel with a golden censer came and stood at the altar; he was given a great quantity of incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar that is before the throne. And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers fo the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel. (Revelation 8.3–4)
The image at the top of the post, from an eleventh century manuscript, the Bamberg Apocalypse, depicts this very scene.
The Book of Tobit continues without skipping a beat. After the prayers were heard, “Raphael was sent to heal both of them”—that is, Tobit and Sarah, each from their particular afflictions. We call it a spoiler, but it’s really one of the narrator’s favorite techniques; he’s constantly teasing events to come. In this instance, it’s an incredible picture of how lonely and separate the human experience can feel but how intertwined our lives truly are.
The narrator mentions both Tobias and Raphael as the means to this mutually beneficial end. We already know Tobias; he’s Tobit’s adult son, his only son. Raphael, on the other hand, is an angel. Specifically, he’s one of those angels standing before God, mentioned in Revelation 8. He says so himself later in the book. “I am Raphael, one of the seven angels who stand ready and enter before the glory of the Lord” (Tobit 12.15).
We’ll explore the significance of that as the story develops, but for now focus on God’s provision. This is the only place in all of holy writ where two people are brought so low as to plead for their own death, and God hears and sends help instead. Raphael’s name means “the healing of God,” one of the many winks the narrator offers as the story unfolds.
Emphasizing the synchronicity of the prayers, the narrator tells us at the close of the chapter that Tobit and Sarah end their petitions “at the same time.”
St. Augustine’s beautiful line on prayer ascending and mercy descending:
The prayer of the just man is the key to heaven. The prayer ascends, and God's mercy descends. Although the earth is deep down and heaven is high up, God hears the tongue of man, if his conscience is clean. . . . Rain from the eyes is enough for his ears; he hears tears more quickly than words.4
Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon on the simultaneity of Tobit and Sarah’s prayers:
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). If the Book of Tobit were performed as an opera, the two prayers would constitute a duet. 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. Albeit unwittingly, then, the hearts of Tobit and Sarah were united in prayer on earth.5
Coming next week in episode 4
Tobit knows nothing about what’s happening in heaven or an angel being dispatched for his healing. All he knows is that he’s prayed to die, and evidently believes in the power of prayer because he immediately starts making preparations for his exit.
Next week we discuss what he says to his son Tobias and the MacGuffin that moves the story forward. But then—you already knew it was money, didn’t you?
Last but not least: Please take a moment to rate, review, and help others find out about the show!
Robert Littman lists these manuscripts and provides some helpful background in his translation and commentary on the book. See Robert J. Littman, Tobit: The Book of Tobit in Codex Sinaiticus (Brill, 2008).
Peter G. Bolt, “What Were the Sadducees Reading? An Enquiry into the Literary Background of Mark 12:18–23,” Tyndale Bulletin 45.2 (1994), 369–394.
Patrick Henry Reardon, Christ in His Saints (Conciliar, 2004), 81.
John Litteral, The Early Church Fathers Bible Commentary: The Book of Tobit (CreateSpace, 2017), 14.
Patrick Henry Reardon, “Under the Gaze of God and Angels,” Touchstone, May/June 1999. Reardon, in Christ in His Saints, speculates that a Hebrew or Aramaic reconstruction of their prayers might yield an exact number of words as well, emphasizing the parallel nature of their petitions (p. 81). They started their prayer at the same moment and ended in sync, “a duet.”