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Monday, August 07, 2006

Tobit and Sarah

Not long ago, at the scripture blog to which I belong, we were discussing what to read next. One suggestion was the Book of Tobit, and it wan't until then that I realized that book was not part of the Protestant Bible. We ended up choosing something else, and I was somewhat disappointed, because the Book of Tobit has it all ... two characters, Tobias and Sarah, in such despair they pray for death, annd a plot that intertwines a giant fish, a demon, and an angel in such a way as to make everything right. Here's a synopsis of the story from the New American Bible ...

Tobit, a devout and wealthy Israelite living among the captives deported to Nineveh from the northern kingdom of Israel in 721 B.C., suffers severe reverses and is finally blinded. Because of his misfortunes he begs the Lord to let him die. But recalling the large sum he had formerly deposited in far-off Media, he sends his son Tobiah there to bring back the money. In Media, at this same time, a young woman, Sarah, also prays for death, because she has lost seven husbands, each killed in turn on his wedding night by the demon Asmodeus. God hears the prayers of Tobit and Sarah, and sends the angel Raphael in disguise to aid them both.

Raphael makes the trip to Media with Tobiah. When Tobiah is attacked by a large fish as he bathes, Raphael orders him to seize it and to remove its gall, heart, and liver because they make "useful medicines." Later, at Raphael's urging, Tobiah marries Sarah, and uses the the fish's heart and liver to drive Asmodeus from the bridal chamber. Returning to Nineveh with his wife and his father's money, Tobiah rubs the fish's gall into his father's eyes and cures them. Finally, Raphael reveals his true identity and returns to heaven.

What are we to make of this story? I recently read a homily by Fr. Rob Marsh SJ on Tobit that has some insights ...

Wednesday Week 9 Year I

June 1st, 2005

Listen to them pray. Listen to Tobit and to Sarah. They are both beyond the protocols of prayer.

Tobit wants to die. His life is a misery. He is blind. He has to rely on charity to keep him, or—worse of all it seems to him—women’s work. And he’s going a little mad with it all. So he lays it on thick to God. You are great and wonderful God and all you do is true and good but we are all worthless maggots who have never done what we should. I deserve to be punished, to live and suffer, but please snuff me out and have done with it. Let it be over.

Sarah too wants to die. She has husband trouble—or maybe demon trouble. Seven she has lost, all on her wedding nights, before they ever got to her marriage bed. But it’s not the lost husbands she is worried about in her prayer—it’s that people are talking! Suicide has its problems so she turns to God to do the deed—she too prays to die. Let it be over.

They both pray lousy prayers full of mixed motives, misunderstandings, and manipulation. They are hardly models for us, yet their prayer is the prayer of all the afflicted, offended, lost souls of this world.

And God hears. Both of them found favour before the glory of God it says. Prayer may be messy, it may be selfish, it may be theologically incorrect—but God hears. And God’s answer is to give them both better than they ask. God’s answer is an angel. They want to die but what they get is an angel to heal them. A rather delightful, incognito angel with a dog for a sidekick.

The answer is immediate though the healing takes quite a while to be revealed. The remedy for Tobit and the remedy for Sarah, though hundreds of miles apart, turn out to be joined by a journey, several outrageous coincidences, and a near miss with a killer fish. Oh and true love. … and treasure—read on!

Tobit and Sarah must have been so very disappointed that night they prayed, let it be over. Come the morning they were still there: Tobit still humiliated and blind; Sarah still a scandal and unwed. God’s care is never over. God’s remedy for them took some brewing, some strange twists, a fishy exorcism, and an angel with a dog. But as we shall see our God is God of the living not the dead.

- The Wedding Night of Tobias and Sarah by Jan Steen


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