Next week, we get back to the study on the Book of Revelation. In the meantime, here is something that I find interesting and even a bit humorous.
Protestants don’t know much about the Apocrypha, also called the Deutero-Canonical books. While many translations will include the Apocrypha (usually between the Testaments or at the end), very few Protestants will read from them and Protestant ministers will almost never preach from them. But even martin Luther said, “These books are not held equal to the Sacred Scriptures, and yet are useful and good for reading.” The official Roman Catholic stance is that these books are “suitable for instruction” and are indeed a part of the canon of Scripture.
Personally, these books fascinate me, especially the book of Tobit.
Tobit is at once strange and charming, humorous, and full of surprises, and perhaps the closest thing to a fairytale in the Bible. One of the more unexpected story elements is the seemingly arbitrary arrival of a dog on two separate occasions.
What’s So Peculiar about this Dog?
Dogs do not appear often in the Bible, and when they do, negative associations often attach. Examples include the presence of dogs in the stories about Jezebel’s gory demise (2 Kings 9:10, 2 Kings 9:36), the social marginalization of a Canaanite woman (Matthew 15:21-28; Mark 7:24-30), and a poor man named Lazarus (Luke 16:19-21). They were often considered scavengers in ancient Near Eastern cultures, not pets. Even today, Muslims consider dogs to be unclean and must undergo ritual purification after touching or being touched by a dog. In Tobit, however, such negative associations are lacking.
Also unusual is the absence of any explanatory remarks. The dog simply wanders into the story unbidden:
“The young man [Tobias] went out and the angel [Raphael] went with him; and the dog… went along with them” (Tobit 6:1-2 NRSV). Later, … the dog went along behind them [Raphael and Tobias] (Tobit 11:4 NRSV).
Readers might wonder what dog? Some ancient manuscripts identify the animal as Tobias’s (e.g., “the young man’s dog” in Tobit 5:16 RSV), which suggests those responsible for those manuscripts also found the dog’s sudden appearance strange. They supply extra information to make sense of it. Other ancient manuscripts, like the one followed by the NRSV, suggest no such attachment. Either way, the dog’s presence in the story is curious.
But then curiosity begins to take over…
Is This Dog an Angel?
Still, the dog’s arrival is perhaps not entirely random. The timing of the canine’s appearances hint at a possible explanation. Characters in Tobit only discover Raphael is an angel late in the story when he is identified as a manifestation of God’s grace and an answer to Tobit’s prayers (Tobit 12:18). Before that, they think of Raphael as simply a traveling companion, even a kinsman of Tobias. Yet, readers know better.
Before his son Tobias embarks on a dangerous mission, Tobit reassures the boy’s mother that “a good angel will accompany [Tobias]; his journey will be successful, and he will come back in good health” (Tobit 5:21-22). This is humorous because readers already know Raphael is an angel (cf. Tobit 5:4), but there is more to smile about here. Just two verses later, we read about the dog going “along with them,” referring to both Tobias and Raphael (Tobit 6:2).
Why is this significant?
Tobit, the father, blesses the two companions before they leave: “May God in heaven bring you [plural] safely there and return you in good health to me; and may his angel … accompany you both for your safety” (Tobit 5:17). Consistent with the blessing, the mysterious dog appears precisely at the start of each stage of the two-part travel narrative (“safely there and return”). Tobit also asks for an angelic companion for both of them. Raphael is an accompanying angel, yes, but what angel accompanies him in keeping with Tobit’s blessing? Dare we say the dog?
To suggest the dog has no meaningful purpose in the book or that Tobit 6:2 and Tobit 11:4 are poorly integrated fragments from an earlier source is possible but speculative. However, viewing the dog as the answer to Tobit’s prayer of Tobit 5:17 makes perfect sense of the text. In an often-humorous story about answered prayers and God’s provision of companionship and protection, the presence of a tail-wagging, canine angel seems fitting.
I’m sure our Labradoodle Audrey would agree.
Do yourself a favor and read the book of Tobit.
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