Tobit’s Dog

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 (2Kgs 9:10, 2Kgs 9:36), the social marginalization of a Canaanite woman (Matt 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. 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 (Tob 6:1-2 NRSV).

… the dog went along behind them [Raphael and Tobias] (Tob 11:4 NRSV).

Readers might wonder: what dog? Some ancient manuscripts identify the animal as Tobias’s (e.g., “the young man’s dog” at Tob 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.

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 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 (Tob 12:18). Before that, they think of Raphael as simply a traveling companion. 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” (Tob 5:21-22). This is humorous because readers already know Raphael is an angel (cf. Tob 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 (Tob 6:2). Why is this significant?

Tobit 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” (Tob 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 Tob 6:2 and Tob 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 Tob 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.

Contributors

  • gilmour-michael

    Professor of New Testament & English Literature, Providence University College

    Michael Gilmour teaches New Testament at Providence University College (Canada). Among his publications is Eden’s Other Residents: The Bible and Animals (Cascade, 2014).