October 24, 2014

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Old Testament: The popular story of Tobiah and Sarah

John F. Fink(Forty-second in a series of columns)

Before allowing the Jews to return to Judah from Babylon, which they do in the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah, I’m going to write about the Books of Tobit, Judith and Esther because the events in those books were supposed to have occurred before or during the exile in Babylon. They are listed in the Bible as historical books after Nehemiah, but they are not historical.

The Book of Tobit is a fascinating religious novel set after the fall of the Kingdom of Israel to the Assyrians in 721 B.C. The principal characters are Tobit, his son Tobiah, Sarah who has had seven husbands, each of whom died on their wedding night, and the archangel Raphael.

I’ll summarize the story, but I hope you’ll read its 14 chapters this week if you haven’t done so before. It has long been a popular book among both Jews and Christians.

Tobit was a wealthy Israelite who was taken from Samaria to Ninevah by the Assyrians. We learn that he was a devout man, performing charitable acts and risking his life to bury the dead Israelites killed by Sennacherib. He once had to go into hiding when Sennacherib learned who was burying the dead.

But then he suffered financial reverses, contracted cataracts and eventually went blind. He prayed to God, begging him to let him die.

At the same time, in Ecbatana in Media, Sarah was despairing because of those seven husbands who were killed by the demon Asmodeus on their wedding nights. She, too, prayed for death.

God heard both prayers, but did not grant them. Instead, he sent Archangel Raphael to heal both Tobit and Sarah.

Tobit remembered that he had left a large sum of money in Media, so he sent his son Tobiah to get it. Tobiah met Raphael, disguised as a man, and they traveled together. On the way, Tobiah was attacked by a large fish and Raphael told him to grab it, kill it, and remove its gall, heart and liver.

Arriving in Media, they stayed at the home of Raguel, Sarah’s father, who was Tobiah’s closest relative. At Raphael’s urging, Tobiah married Sarah. During the wedding night, Tobiah used the fish’s heart and liver to drive out Asmodeus.

After a wedding feast, Tobiah recovered Tobit’s money and Tobiah, Sarah and Raphael made the return trip. On their arrival, Tobiah rubbed the fish’s gall into Tobit’s eyes and cured his blindness. Raphael revealed his true identity and returned to heaven. Then Tobit composed a lengthy, joyful prayer.

Tobit died at age 112, by which time Tobiah and Sarah had seven sons. Before he died, Tobit told Tobiah to leave Ninevah because the Lord was going to destroy the city. The whole family moved to Media, where they learned later that Ninevah had been destroyed.

Within the story, the author included numerous maxims and teachings including fidelity to the law, reverence for the dead, the role of angels, honor toward parents, the purity of marriage, and the value of almsgiving, prayer and fasting. †

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