Reading Tobit with Christic Eyes: Christ Images in the Book of Tobit
The Book of Tobit, found in the Septuagint and maintained as deuterocanonical/canonical in both East and West, is replete with Christological foreshadowing and imagery. Within the Anglican context, we see that Tobit is appointed regularly in the Lectionary thereby acknowledging its theological value. This book, and the other ‘apocryphal’ books mentioned in Article VI, are “read for example of life and instruction.” Thus, we see that there is a clear dialogical reality to the Deuterocanon which compels our reading and use. This article is not a defense of the Deuterocanon; rather, it is a theological meditation focused on particular Christological themes found in the text of Tobit.
We do not read the Old Testament as disconnected from the New, and nor do we read the New disconnected from the Old. Rather, there is a radical sense of unity and continuity between the two Testaments. We may take our starting point directly from Christ himself on the Road to Emmaus: “And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24: 27). Our Lord makes a clear point of Christological hermeneutics—he opens up the Scriptures (the Old Testament in this context) to those present (as He did on many occasions) and points the text to himself as Messiah, Son of God, Redeemer of the world, and the Fulfiller of the Law. From this vantage, I would like to approach the Book of Tobit and draw out a handful of themes that point us to Christ.
Remember: these are Christological images which point us to the reality of Christ—they are not exact corollaries and nor do they present a systematic Jewish theology of Messiah. Rather, they form an allegorical touchstone, through which, we may see the Truth of Our Lord’s salvific life, death, resurrection, and glorious ascension. Also, as a point of terminology, I will use ‘Christic’ (as or pertaining to Christ) and ‘Christological’ interchangeably.
Tobit Sends his Son, Tobias
Allow me the chance to allegorize. We see in the opening chapters of Tobit the righteousness of both father and son. We see that Tobias sends his only son on a mission which includes the relative salvation of their family. Tobias is called the “staff of our hands” (Tobit 5:17) by his mother. The “staff” indicates a level of both service and protection. Tobias is seen as the agent of his father: his direct, noble, and righteous representative. Tobias takes upon himself the will of his father and journeys towards the restoration of his family. He is the son sent by his father. We see this clearly pointing to the reality of Christ, sent of the Father, with divine authority to bring the family of God into the joys of salvation. Our Lord wields the staff of the shepherd and guides his flock on the paths of righteousness. His will is the will of the Father and in His redemptive and salvific journey, He brings mankind back from the snares of Satan, sin, and death.
Tobias and the Fish
Tobias journeys with his guide, the angel Raphael, to marry his relative, Sarah, and to claim the family inheritance. On his quest, he stops by the Tigris river and is almost consumed by a fish. Raphael tells Tobias to catch the fish and kill it. Tobias is instructed to take the heart, the liver, and the gall and to keep them for some future purpose. We would be remiss if we glossed over the image of the fish. In Christian history, the fish has always carried a Christological image. In the days of the catacombs, the fish (ichthys) became one of the most significant Christian symbols. Here, in Tobit, we see that the fish literally gives up its life and serves later as the instrument of healing to both Sarah and Tobit. Our Lord, in his own ministry, multiplies loaves and fish for the sake of feeding the multitude. Christ gives up his life for the perfect healing and forgiveness of mankind. He is offered up, broken apart, and distributed in the Blessed Sacrament, as the ‘medicine of immortality’.
Later in the story, we see that there is a demon that besets Sarah and has prevented the consummation of her marriages. Raphael instructs Tobias, the new bridegroom, to burn the liver and the heart of the fish to drive away the tormentor. Later, in a dual image, we see that the demon is chased into the wilderness (see the scapegoat offered to Azazel in Lev. 16) and bound by Raphael, the Angel of Healing. The fish becomes the means by which the tormentor is destroyed and the means of Sarah’s freedom. The other image comes to the forefront in Tobias’ role as the bridegroom. Tobias is Sarah’s intended groom and savior. Sarah can be seen as a type of the Church, tormented by the powers of darkness, and freed by the salvific action of the Groom. Tobias and his bride celebrate their salvation with a glorious wedding feast- a clear allusion to the Wedding Feast of the Lamb.
Tobit is Healed of his Blindness by the Gall of the Fish
Upon Tobias’ return to the home of his father, we see another striking Christic allegory. Tobias, under the instruction of Raphael, takes the gall of the fish and applies it to the eyes of his father, and sight is restored. The RSV makes a lovely linguistic point that connects this moment to the healing of the blind man in John 9.
Tobit 11:7-8 states, “Raphael said, “I know, Tobias, that your father will open his eyes. You therefore must anoint his eyeswith the gall; and when they smart he will rub them, and will cause the white films to fall away, and he will see you.”
John 9:6-7 states, “As he said this, he spat on the ground and made clay of the spittle and anointed the man’s eyes with the clay, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). So, he went and washed and came back seeing.”
Tobias, in the healing of his father’s blindness, points us to two realities. Firstly, we see that Christ is our divine Healer. Our Lord, in His own Divine Authority, brings healing and life to mankind. Secondly, Christ brings sight to the blind through his presence. We are brought into the light of Truth and understanding through Christ, the Logos. Our Lord is the means by which our blindness, our unbelief, our sinfulness, and our faithlessness are healed. We see with new eyes because of Christ.
The Book of Tobit, abounding with moral allusions, filial piety, wisdom themes, and God’s call to righteousness is also a well from which the Christian is free to draw Christological edification. Tobit, read in the light of Christ, points us constantly to the Providence, Goodness, and Mercy of our Loving God. We are Tobit, blind and unseeing, until we are healed by God. We are given new life. This new life carries with it a new vision of the world- we are given Christic eyes, through which, we see the wondrous works of God. The Book of Tobit, like all of the Old Testament, points us to redemption. It points us to the reality of Christ’s salvific life, death, resurrection, and ascension. We read every page of the Old Testament and marvel at salvation history. We stand with Tobias and his family, looking to the redemption of the world in the person of Christ, and say:
Many nations will come from afar to the name of the Lord God,
bearing gifts in their hands, gifts for the King of heaven.
Generations of generations will give you joyful praise.
Cursed are all who hate you;
blessed for ever will be all who love you.
Rejoice and be glad for the sons of the righteous;
for they will be gathered together,
and will praise the Lord of the righteous.
How blessed are those who love you!
They will rejoice in your peace. (Tobit 13:11-14)
Creighton McElveen is a postulant in the Diocese of the Eastern United States in the Anglican Province of America. He holds a B.A. in Intellectual History from Kennesaw State University and a M.A. in Theology from St. Joseph’s College of Maine. His thesis is titled “Henri de Lubac and the Debate on Nature and Grace: The Natural Desire for the Supernatural as Hermeneutic of Being”. His interests include Anglo-Catholic History, Nouvelle Théologie, Liturgics, Scholasticism, and Philosophical Theology. Creighton also loves art, poetry, and pipe smoking. He is a member of The Society of Mary, Guild of All Souls, and the Society of King Charles the Martyr. He is also a member of the American Academy of Religion.