Tobit: I Once Was Blind, But Now I See!
Tobias loads up and heads back to Nineveh with Sarah, carrying a cure for dad. Today we talk about the role of stories about virtuous lives and discuss Tobit 11.1–18(19).
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Life lessons with Tobit
As we’ve mentioned before, Jerome had mixed feelings about Tobit. He regarded the book as apocryphal, and was among the first to apply that designation. (See episode guide 1 and 6.) But he still translated it when requested to do so by a pair of bishops, and in his preface to the book—a letter to those bishops—he describes Tobit with another, less derogatory term: hagiographa, “holy writing.”
As English speakers, we’re used to hearing the term hagiography in reference to glowing, uncritical biography—the story of, say, a historical figure that overlooks their faults or downplays unflattering events.
But as readers of saints’ lives we can also pick up another meaning from the term: the life story of a holy person, told with elevated or spiritual language and formulations, casting events in sometimes wild or fantastical terms to prompt reflection and contemplation.
Following Jewish use, St. Jerome considered the Book of Tobit noncanonical but nonetheless holy. And he translated the book in part to share the moral example of its characters.
His emphasis on highlighting the stories of exemplary figures can be seen in his preface to another “bad” book of the Bible, Judith, which he also labels as hagiographa:
Receive the widow Judith, an example of chastity, and declare triumphal honor with perpetual praises for her. For this one has the Rewarder of her chastity given as imitable not only for women but also for men, Who granted her such strength that she conquered the one unconquered by all men. . . .1
We have plans on covering Judith down the road. For now, note that this category of “holy writings” is valuable because of the life lessons, moral instruction, and so on contained in the story. This seems to have been exactly Jerome’s attitude regarding Tobit—a holy book about holy people whose holy lives are wholly worth reading about and imitating.
Differing expectations? Yes and no
As modern readers, we usually bring different expectations to biography and autobiography. Our standards for historicity and precision vary from those in ancient times. But we still enjoy reading stories of people’s lives and gleaning instruction and insight from their journeys.
Just look at a modern work, like actor Matthew McConaughey’s popular memoir, Greenlights. It exemplifies this integration of history and insight that can be learned and applied by the reader. His story contains facts from his life with tidbits of wisdom picked up along the way about relationships, success, family, and more.
And ancient examples can still serve us here as well. I (Jamey), have been reading St. Gregory of Nyssa’s The Life of Moses. From one angle, it’s a biography of a man. St. Gregory spends much of the book recounting the events of Moses’s life according to the general narrative of Hebrew scripture. But he doesn’t leave the story as a mere recounting of facts.
The book turns into an application of principles learned from Moses. Even more than an example, St. Gregory gives us a mystical application in which he sees a pattern in Moses’s life of the soul’s progress toward God. With that in view, he attempts to apply the life of Moses and the scriptural narrative to our own lives.
In fact, the entire book was written in response to a letter he received from a man named Caesarius, about pursuing a life of virtue. At the end of the historical section, St. Gregory says,
Now we must adapt the life which we have called to mind to the aim we have proposed for our study so that we might gain some benefit for the virtuous life from the things mentioned. Let us now begin the account of this life.2
The next section is devoted to a contemplation of the life of Moses—how to apply to our lives the example of baby-in-a-basket-Moses, as well as the meeting-with-God-law-giver Moses, and so on.
We may not have the same strong allegorical impulses as St. Gregory possessed, but we can appreciate his insistence on finding applicable meaning in spiritual stories of virtuous lives.
It’s no wonder then that so many generations of Christians have fallen in love with Tobit and its vision of virtue and faithfulness in all things—not to mention the best dog in the entire Bible—and have thereby drawn inspiration for their lives from this book.
The dog’s wagging tail (Tobit 11.1–4)
Tobias leaves Ecbatana with an entourage, including his new wife Sarah, and piles of possessions loaded on camels. Tobias’s dog, who makes a couple of appearances in the story, naturally follows along.
As the caravan nears Nineveh, Raphael suggests that he and Tobias run ahead to meet Tobit with the medicine. “Let us run ahead,” says Raphael. “Have the gall ready.” The dog broke away from the entourage as well and ran ahead with Tobias and Raphael.
Commentators have had some fun with the dog in this scene. “One must not dismiss with scorn the figure of this dog, which is a traveler and the companion of an angel,” says St. Bede in his commentary on the book.
He compares the dog to teachers of the church who drive away heretics like wolves from the flock and who ran ahead with Tobias like a missionary with the message of their arrival.
He then notes the narrator included a “charming observation,” that the dog displayed his joy “‘by wagging his tail,’ for the tail, which is the end of the body, suggests the end of a good work.”3
The dog did wag his tail in Bede’s copy of the Bible, which was St. Jerome’s Vulgate translation. But that detail is missing from the older Greek versions and is not part of the original composition. Where did it come from?
Not regarding the book as canonical, Jerome felt less restraint when translating it and seems to have included the detail as an allusion to Argus the dog’s wagging tail in the Odyssey. Writes Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon,
It is not difficult to discern why the prankish Jerome engaged in this little witticism. Struck by the story’s resemblance to Homer’s Odyssey, which also tells of a man’s journey back to the home of his father, Jerome remembered Argus, the dog of Odysseus, the first friend to recognize that ancient traveler on his return to Ithaca. The old and weakened Argus, Homer wrote, when he recognized his master’s voice, ‘endeavored to wag his tail’ (Odyssey 17.302).
There was more than a joke involved here, however. Jerome correctly regarded the trip of Tobias, like the travels of Odysseus, as a symbol of man’s journey through this world, returning to the paternal home. Tobias thus takes his place with Gilgamesh, Theseus, Jason and the Argonauts, Aeneas, and the other great travelers of literature.4
The son returns home (Tobit 11.5–9)
Anna, who’s been waiting by the roadside every day since Tobias left, saw him coming along with Raphael and the dog. “Look,” she shouts to Tobit, “your son is coming, and the man who went with him!” The scene is reminiscent of the father in the Parable of the Lost Son: “while he was still a long way off, his father saw him” (Luke 15.21).
Raphael instructs Tobias to get the fish guts ready. “Smear the gall of the fish on his eyes,” he says. The medicine will take effect immediately, he says, and cause the films to come off his eyes. “Your father will regain his sight and see the light.”
Anna runs to Tobias, weeping and throwing her arms around him. “I have seen my child, now I am ready to die.” St. Ambrose comments:
When we miss someone and hope for their coming, do we not direct our eyes to where we hope they will come from? And so, after long contenting ourselves with daily expectation, we lose our strength. So did Anna, looking round the road, keep a restless watch for her son’s coming. . . . So does a wife of tender age, on a watchtower on the seashore, await her husband’s coming with indefatigable expectation, so that every time she sees a ship, she imagines that her spouse is sailing over there, and she fears that someone else should gain the privilege of seeing her beloved before she does, and that she should not be able to be the first one to say, “I see you, my husband,” as Anna said to her son, “I see you, my son; from henceforth I am content to die,” that is because the sweetness of the much-desired sight would cause her not to feel the pain of death.5
Tobit healed! (Tobit 11.10–14)
Meanwhile, Tobit has found his feet and stumbles from the courtyard to the road. Tobias runs to him and says, echoing Edna’s earlier statements to Sarah, “Take courage, father.”
Following Raphael’s instructions, Tobias applies the medicine by dabbing his father’s eyes with the fish guts. The ointment stings, but it loosens the films covering his eyes. He peels them off and for the first time in years Tobit can see! His blindness is healed.
It’s worth remembering there’s a spiritual aspect to this blindness. This is deeper than mere physical healing. It calls to mind the Psalm 145.8 in the Septuagint: “the Lord gives wisdom to the blind”6 and Acts 9.18: “immediately something like scales fell from his eyes.”
St. Bede found reminders here about “spiritual blindness” to the gospel and the kingdom of God, and the importance of having “the fog of error” lifted by acknowledging “tht the Christ has come already and redeemed the world by his blood.”7
Now able to see, Tobit throws his arms around his son and says, “I see you, my son, the light of my eyes.” If before Tobit was overly concerned about his money in Rages and willing to risk the life of his son to get it, he now recognizes that state as blindness. Now he sees his true wealth is his son.
Tobit praises God (Tobit 11.14–15)
“At the top of his voice” Tobit now breaks into song:
Blessed are you, O God, and blessed is your name forever, and blessed are your holy angels.
For you have afflicted me, but you have had mercy upon me; behold, I see Tobias my son!
His praise echoes earlier exclamations by Tobias in 8.5–7 and Raguel 8.15–17. Here, however, there’s an additional “blessed” to the holy angels. It’s an amusing nod by the narrator to the agent of Tobit’s own healing; it’s not only true, but Tobit is also still in the dark on that point. “Little does he know,” we’re tempted to say.
The prayer also refers to the chastening of God, which has apparently had its effect. It’s something the faithful can expect. Says scholar David deSilva, “Tobit’s experience—’Though he afflicted me, he has had mercy upon me’ (11:15)—will yet be the experience of the whole people of God.”8
But while affliction is certain, so is God’s mercy. Says St. John Chrysostom,
For God could never suffer those who have endured so many and so great evils, and who have spent all the present life in trials and dangers without number, to be without a recompense of far greater gifts; and if he could not suffer this, it is certain that he has prepared another, a better and brighter life, in which he will crown those who have wrestled in the cause of godliness, and proclaim their praises in the presence of the whole world.9
Chrysostom goes on to express hope in the “resurrection and judgment” as a means of making sense of the twists and turns of this life.
Welcome to the family, now let’s party (Tobit 11.15–18)
Tobias catches his dad up on everything that had happened along his journey: the money, his new wife, and the fact that she should be arriving any second now. Excited, they walk to the city gates to welcome Sarah.
The neighbors are amazed when they see Tobit walking on his own “in full vigor.” The same people that before jeered and gossiped are now blown away to see him healed. The city gates were crowded, busy places, and Tobit had everybody’s attention as he shared what God had done.
The Orthodox Study Bible comments at this point:
Tobit did four things en route to the gate of Nineveh which are instructive for all fathers, and for all believers: (1) he rejoiced, as St. Paul so often encouraged the Philippians to do; (2) he blessed God for his son’s new bride; (3) he publicly gave thanks for his restored eyesight; and (4) he blessed his family. God loves a grateful servant.
And David deSilva says,
The response to receiving benefits from God is public testimony to the Benefactor, honoring God and increasing God’s fame in the world. . . . This is rooted in the practice of honoring and increasing the reputation of human benefactors in the ancient world.10
Tobit’s restored sight means he’s able to see and welcome his daughter in law. “Come in, my daughter, and welcome,” he says. “Blessed be your father and your mother, blessed be my son Tobias, and blessed be you, my daughter. Come in now to your home, and welcome, with blessing and joy.”
The excitement and joy explodes in this passage. “There was rejoicing among all the Jews who were in Nineveh,” says the narrator. Tobit’s nephew and ally Ahikar is there to celebrate as well, along with his nephew Nadab.
The chapter closes on a note of extended celebration. A week-long party was customary at this time, but remember they already had a double feast back in Ecbatana (Tobit 8.19)! They’ve really celebrated this wedding.11
We have joy in threes here: Tobias’s return, Tobit’s healing, and the joyful marriage.
Coming next week . . .
It’s Raphael’s big reveal! In the meantime, please take a moment to share “Bad” Books of the Bible with apocry-fans, apocry-curious, and anyone else who loves a good story.
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Gregory of Nyssa. The Life of Moses, translated by Abraham J. Malherbe and Everett Ferguson (Paulist Press, 1978), 51.
Quoted in Sever J. Voicu, ed., Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Vol. 15 (InterVarsity Press, 2010), 24–25.
Patrick Henry Reardon, Christ in His Saints (Conciliar, 2004), 278.
Quoted John Litteral, The Early Church Fathers Bible Commentary: The Book of Tobit (CreateSpace, 2017), 84.
Donald Sheehan, trans., The Psalms of David (Wipf and Stock, 2013).
Quoted in Litteral, The Early Church Fathers, 85.
David A. deSilva, Introducing the Apocrypha (Baker Academic, 2018), 79.
Quoted in Litteral, The Early Church Fathers, 86–87.
DeSilva, Introducing the Apocrypha, 78.
Verse 19 is part of the shorter version (GI); the longer version (GII) stops at verse 18. But composite versions, like that found in the NRSV, retain the abbreviated number while smuggling mention of the seven-day celebration into verse 18.