Is That Biblical Dog an Angel?

The charming and occasionally humorous Book of Tobit appears in the Greek Septuagint and has a place in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox (Greek and Russian) canonical traditions. The setting of this fairy tale-like romance is Nineveh in the late eighth and early seventh centuries B.C.E. where the titular character lives after the Assyrians carried Israel's Northern Kingdom into captivity (Tobit 1:1-3 cf. 2 Kings 17:1-6).

At the heart of the story is a journey. After the righteous Tobit goes blind (2:9-10) and expects to die, he sends his son Tobias on a mission to recover money left in trust with a relative, money the young man will need to bury his father, care for his mother, and practice almsgiving (4:1-11). A lot happens during the course of Tobias' adventure. A stranger offers to accompany him who turns out to be an angel (5:4), though no one realizes this until he reveals his identity later in the story (12:15: "I am Raphael, one of the seven angels who stand ready and enter before the glory of the Lord"). Together, Tobias and Raphael recover the money (9:5) and liberate the pious Sarah from the tormenting demon Asmodeus (3:8; 8:2-3). Tobias marries Sarah (7:12), and on their return home, Raphael provides a cure for Tobit's blindness (11:13-14). Everyone lives happily ever after, as is only fitting in a good fairy tale.

As an animal lover and dog owner, I find two verses particularly amusing. One occurs at the outset of this important journey, the other when Tobias and his (angelic) companion are homeward bound:

The young man [Tobias] went out and the angel [Raphael] went with him; and the dog came out with him and went along with them. (6:1-2; 5:16 in the RSV)

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

The dog appears on both occasions without any introduction. Is it Tobit's dog? The Vaticanus and Alexandrinus versions of the story offer this explanation at 5:17 (LXX), which is followed by the RSV (at 5:16: "the young man's dog"). Or is the animal merely a stray, a roaming scavenger belonging to no one? Codex Sinaiticus suggests this, mentioning "the dog" without any further qualification (the reading followed by the NRSV). Either way, the appearance of "the dog" (or "the young man's dog") leaves us to speculate about why the animal is in the story at all, and why it shows up specifically as the friends begin their travels?

The angel Raphael is obviously a vehicle of God's grace (12:18). When Tobit comforts his wife Anna who is concerned for her son's safety, he says, "Do not fear for them, my sister. For a good angel will accompany him; his journey will be successful, and he will come back in good health" (5:21-22). This is rather humorous, of course, because Raphael is an angel (cf. 5:4) though Tobit is not aware of this. And there may be more to smile about here. Just two verses after Tobit's assertion of an accompanying angel -- and without warning and sitting oddly in its context -- we learn of "the dog" that "came out with him [Tobit] and went along with them [Tobias and Raphael]" (6:2). Is "the dog" also an angel? The question presents itself because in his blessing on Tobias and Raphael, Tobit says, "May God in heaven bring you [plural] safely there and return you in good health to me; and may his angel, my son, accompany you both for your safety" (ho angelos autou sumporeuthato humin [plural]; 5:17). Tobit specifically mentions both legs of the journey (there and back), and the mysterious dog appears each time the friends hit the road. The prayer is also for an angelic companion for both Tobias and Raphael. Raphael is an angel, yes, but what angel accompanies him in accordance with Tobit's promised blessing? The dog qualifies.

Even if the last suggestion is off the mark, I find this appearance of a mysterious companion animal a compelling image of human (Tobias), nonhuman (dog), and divine (Raphael) harmony and fellowship. It is also a subtle reminder that we find God in -- and experience God's blessings through -- the wonders of the natural world, including animals. Perhaps we would do well to extend Hebrews' call to "show hospitality to strangers" to animals. After all, "by doing that, some have entertained angels without knowing it" (Hebrews 13:2). Tobias might agree.