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When angels appear in the Bible, they usually deliver a short message and disappear. But there’s one time when an angel comes to earth and stays awhile: in the Book of Tobit. Here, then, is a unique chance to get to know an angel.
Tobit includes elements you’d expect in a folk tale: a hero on a journey for treasure, a damsel in distress, and dragon-like foes. That’s because although the story has a historical setting, it is inspired fiction. This imaginative quality doesn’t make it any less inspired than other types of writing in Scripture. As Jesus showed by using parables, fiction can reveal the works of God.
Two Families in Trouble. The story opens with elderly Tobit, who lives in Nineveh (present-day Mosul, Iraq) with his wife, Anna, and young-adult son, Tobiah. In Ecbatana (near Tehran, Iran) young-adult Sarah lives with her parents, Raguel and Edna. All six characters are presented as faithful Jews exiled after Assyria invaded Israel around 721 B.C.
There are serious problems in both families. In Nineveh, Tobit is punished for aiding his fellow Jews: he loses his government job and sinks into poverty. He then becomes blind and feels humiliated for having to depend on his wife’s earnings. In Ecbatana, Sarah appears cursed: on her wedding night, a demon comes and kills the groom—and this happens with six more husbands! She is tormented by grief and shame.
In despair, both Tobit and Sarah ask God to take their lives. God hears their prayers, but he has a different plan. He jogs Tobit’s memory about a loan he made years before to a friend near Ecbatana. Assuming that he is about to die, Tobit sends Tobiah to go and collect the repayment.
An Angel in Disguise. The 325 miles between Nineveh and Ecbatana is not exactly a secure zone. Traveling by himself, especially on the return trip with a pile of cash, Tobiah would have a good chance of ending up robbed, beaten, and left for dead. He would definitely benefit from a traveling companion.
He runs into just the man, a stranger who knows the way. The stranger identifies himself as Azariah, son of Hananiah. Actually, he is the angel Raphael. But there’s some truth in both names. Azariah means “the Lord has helped,” and Hananiah means “the Lord has shown favor”—and God is about to do both.
Raphael-Azariah looks like an ordinary young man—he has no wings or a halo—but he quickly proves himself invaluable.
Crossing a river, Tobiah is attacked by a strange fish. Raphael tells him to grab it, kill it, and keep the gall, heart, and liver. Farther along, Raphael says that they should spend the night in Ecbatana at Sarah’s parents’. He praises Sarah as “wise, courageous, and very beautiful,” and he suggests that she is the girl for Tobiah. Having heard of Sarah’s slain husbands, Tobiah fearfully demurs. But Raphael assures him that all will be well.
Emboldened by the angel’s words, Tobiah asks for Sarah’s hand in marriage almost immediately upon arriving at Raguel’s. He persists, despite Raguel’s warning about the fate of the previous seven grooms, and a marriage contract is quickly drawn up.
One Surprise after Another. By evening Tobiah and Sarah are alone in the bedroom. Following Raphael’s instructions, Tobiah burns the fish’s heart and liver on an incense burner. The stench drives the demon away, and Raphael pursues and binds him. Tobiah and Sarah say a prayer and climb into bed, blissfully unaware of the spiritual warfare being waged on their behalf.
The story ends with a crescendo of surprises. There is Raguel and Edna’s astonishment when Tobiah appears hale and hearty for breakfast the next morning. When he returns to Nineveh—with a bride, as well as with the money he was sent for—it is Tobit and Anna’s turn to be surprised. Not only that, but Raphael tells Tobiah to place the fish’s gall on his father’s eyes, and the old man’s sight is miraculously restored.
The final surprise comes when Tobit and his son try to pay “Azariah” for his services. “I am Raphael,” he declares, “one of the seven angels who stand and serve before the Glory of the Lord.” Giving the two men a blessing of peace, he ascends to heaven.
An Angel in Action. So what kind of angel is Raphael?
First, he is imperturbable. Nothing surprises him or intimidates him. He does show a trace of impatience when the human characters don’t seem to be moving along with God’s plan as he thinks they should (Tobit 5:8, 12). But in general he is calm and composed, with no excitement, anger, or fear. Second, he knows how to be a good minister of God and a good companion at the same time. He clearly is not a heavenly robot—a spiritual version of Mr. Spock from Star Trek. He comes across to Tobiah as a likeable, foursquare young man, confident of his abilities, with a rock-solid trust in God. I could see him getting into the usual guy talk as he and Tobiah walked along, discussing sports and politics and work. Maybe even women (well, at least one). And, of course, fishing.
Finally, Raphael is wholly oriented toward God and never seeks his own glory. At the end of the story, he deflects any praise of himself by pointing both Tobiah and Tobit toward the true source of salvation and healing. He exhorts them: “Thank God! Give him the praise and the glory. Before all the living, acknowledge the many good things he has done for you, by blessing and extolling his name in song” (Tobit 12:6). These sound like heartfelt, sincere words, not just the standard script an angel is supposed to recite. It makes me imagine him as the kind of guy who would sit up in his sleeping bag each morning, raise his hands to the sky, and call out to Tobiah in a booming voice, “Thank God for another good day to be alive!”
“Become Companions.” We can learn a lot from Raphael, especially in the way he fulfills his mission to be a companion to Tobiah on a difficult journey.
In fact, when I think about Raphael, I remember the encouragement Pope Francis has been giving us to become companions to people in their struggles. “What is important,” he says, “is not to see or help them from a distance. No, No! It is to go and meet them. . . . The gospel tells us constantly to run the risk of a face-to-face encounter with others, with their physical presence which challenges us, with their pain and their pleas, with their joy which infects us in our close and continuous interaction.” Francis encourages us to become “companions along the way . . . walking at people’s side.”
If we look, we’ll find countless opportunities to be companions like Raphael. Some are short-term and require relatively little effort on our part. Once when I was lost in Tel Aviv, a local man, instead of giving me complicated directions, drove ahead of me out of the city to show me how to get to the airport. I’ll always remember his kindness. Perhaps a new person at work, a new student at school, or a new neighbor could benefit from our help while they get oriented.
Other opportunities are more demanding and require us to move a little further out of our comfort zones. For instance, there are programs that pair immigrants learning English with conversation partners. Crisis-pregnancy centers sometimes set up one-to-one helping relationships between new moms and older ones. Some parishes link older married couples as mentors with engaged couples. All these programs and more offer us the opportunity to walk with another person. When we do, let us do it like Raphael, mindful that all good things come from God.
Raphael helped Tobit and Tobiah to have faith in God’s plans. We can’t expect to have an angel’s inside knowledge, of course, but we can exercise faith and hope and bear witness to our trust in the Lord. In fact, with faith in the Lord, we can relax as we accompany others. After all, we all have angels accompanying us!
Kevin Perrotta writes from Ann Arbor, Michigan.