1 Aug 2013

Prayer in the Apocrypha 2: Tobias & Sarah’s Wedding Prayer

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Apocrypha, Bible, Jesus, Jewish Backgrounds, Marriage, Prayer, Spiritual Disciplines, Tobit
Tobit shows how things may go badly with a pious peasant or townsman, and there may be suffering in married life, yet God always graciously helps and finally crowns the outcome with joy, in order that married folk should learn to have patience and, in genuine fear of God and firm faith, put up gladly with all sorts of hardships because they have hope.” (Martin Luther in his Preface to the Book of Tobit)

Setting the Scene

In our last, Prayer in the Apocrypha 1: Tobit and Sarah Cry in the Night, we suggested that the warm, God-centered, piety of this book is the kind that Jesus was reared in.  We suggested that Jesus the Jew heard, and probably said, the prayers in Tobit (or ones very like them).  The more we listen to Tobit and Sarah pray the more we are hearing the very prayers of all God’s people – Jewish or Gentile.

When we left our last, Tobit and Sarah had both offered up prayers from the “deep” up to Merciful God of heaven in the faith that he, and he alone, would solve their woes. God heard those prayers and sent Raphael in disguise to answer both prayers by connecting these Israelites in Exile together.

Blind Tobit begins to set his affairs in order for he just prayed that he would be allowed to die. The Book of Tobit reveals deep respect for women through the character Tobit himself.  Just as Jesus takes care of his mother as he is dying (Jn 19.25-27), so Tobit who believes he will die makes sure Anna is provided for.

My son, when I die, give me a proper burial. Honor your mother and do not abandon her all the days of her life. Do whatever pleases her, and do not grieve her in anything. Remember her, my son, because she faced many dangers for you while you were in her womb. And when she dies, bury her beside me in the same grave” (Tobit 4.3-4)

This window into how Tobit honors his wife Anna is revealing and corrects, as does the whole book, prejudicial notions that Jews in Jesus day held women in disdain and divorced them right and left (a presupposition that is not uncommon).  But Jewish family values were one of the very attractive things about Judaism to pagans themselves.  These values drew many into the fold as “god-fearers” associated with the synagogue. But I digress.

Tobias is commissioned to go on a road trip to Ecbatana.  He finds a companion he believes to be Azariah, but is really “Raphael” who stands in the presence of God.  The journey is a grand adventure finally arriving at the destination.  Along the way Tobias learns of his relative Sarah from Raphael who encourages him to “take her to be your wife in accordance with the law and decree in the book of Moses” (7.12). Tobias is understandably nervous because “Azariah” had informed him that she had already been married seven times and all the husbands had been murdered.  Tobias chooses the route of faith over security and decides to obey the angel in disguise.

Sarah’s Salvation

When Raphael and Tobias arrive, introductions are made. Raguel, Sarah’s father, is rightly ecstatic at the news of a potential husband for her.  Volunteers are hard to come by!!  Without a background check he sends his beloved wife, Edna, to prepare the bridal suite and then announces to his daughter: “Don’t worry, Sarah, I’m sure the Lord of heaven will make you happy this time and not sad. So cheer up, my daughter” (7.18, TEV).  The NJB captures the mood nicely too “the Lord grant you joy in place of your sorrow.

Tobias and Azariah sit for a meal with Raguel, Edna and Sarah showing the solidarity of the family.  Then the parents escort their new son-in-law, along with Sarah, to their honeymoon room. As the door is shut Tobias whips out the rotting fish’s heart and liver on the fire (on the instructions of Raphael).  Asmodeus, the wicked demon, is driven out and Raphael binds him hand and foot (8.3).  Sarah is free from the demon.

Prayer is the Way to Begin a Marriage

The new couple is quite unaware of the supernatural “battle” that took place (and left pretty much unnarrated by the author) the newly weds are still nervous about a great many things.  Getting a marriage off on the right foot is important, especially when you are number eight!! Or you have widowed seven times!!

For some, marriage is a completely “secular” enterprise.  No thought of God and his kingdom purposes are even on the radar screen.  Surprisingly even some Evangelicals, and Restorationists, have been nearly as guilty as secularists in “profaning” the covenant of marriage.  Whether we agree with the Catholic tradition that marriage is a “sacrament” is immaterial, but it is certain that the Hebrew Bible including Tobit envision marriage to be a moment filled with holiness – a God-Moment.

Marriage thus does not begin in sexual celebration – though the Song of Songs makes it quite clear the Bible has no qualms with sexual celebration in marriage.  Rather marriage begins in worship! I find the vision of marriage to be breathtaking beautiful and one that Christians today really need to capture (I write that as a divorced person sadly!).  Tobias “got out of bed.”  He addressed his bride, “Get up, my dear” (TEV) or as the NAB reads much closer to the emotion of the text “My love, get up.” The Greek of the LXX reads “adelphe” which is used in the Song of Songs as a tender way to refer to one’s beloved (cf. 4.9, 10, & 12) [1].  “[L]et us pray and implore our Lord that he grant us mercy and safety.” Together, husband and wife, begin their marriage kneeling in prayer to the God of mercy seeking his blessing upon them.

Blessed are you, O God of our ancestors,
and blessed is your name in all generations forever.
Let the heavens and the whole creation bless you forever.
You made Adam, and for him you made his wife Eve
as a helper and support.
From these two the human race has sprung.
You said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone;
let us make a helper for him like himself.’
I now take this wife of mine,
not because of lust,
but with sincerity {of heart}.
Grant that she and I find mercy
and that we may grow old together.”

And they both said, “Amen, Amen.” (8.5-7)

The narrator has beautifully subverted our expectations as we have read the book.  We may have thought the journey would end in a climatic battle between the Angel who stands in God’s Presence and Asmodeus, the King of Demons.  But no battle dominates. The binding is less than a verse and the contest is not a contest. Rather prayer dominates the entirety of chapter 8 (see remainder of chapter).

The newly weds prayer begins in doxology.  God is to be praised. Creation is exhorted to bless the God of mercy.  The original, pre-Fall human couple, Adam and Eve, are understood to be the model for all future marriages thus the couple quotes the Bible in their prayer.  They confess to God to be entering into this holy covenant with pure motives.  Tobias is not simply seeking a sex object (“not because of lust”) to selfishly gratify his own needs. Righteousness and integrity before the Lord are the foundation of this marriage.  Finally they request two blessings to be upon their marriage that are simply holy and beautiful.  God give us mercy.  Anyone who has been married for any length of time, or has gone through the trauma of divorce, knows that mercy is actually a foundational element of the covenant of marriage.  God grant us mercy. And second Tobias and Sarah are not seeking a throw away marriage.  They seek God’s mercy as a necessary ingredient to a lifetime of marriage. The image of praying, on your wedding night, that God allow you and your spouse to weather the storms of life with mercy growing old together is holy and beautiful. How often do we, as Christians, pray with our spouse for the blessing of growing old together? My guess is not nearly enough.

Wrapping Up

The marriage of Tobias and Sarah and their prayer has spoken to God’s people nearly since the time the book was written. This passage has been used in Christian weddings for centuries. It remains part of the Roman Catholic liturgy for marriage.  Even the Amish use this passage as a model for marriage. I have used it in every wedding I have done since the late 1990s.

From Tobit we learn of the deep and reverent prayer that filled the hearts of Jesus’s people.  From Tobit we learn that prayer was directed to One who was believed to hear prayer simultaneously from vastly different geographical areas. That prayer was offered to One they believed cared deeply about their lives and was intimately involved in the world bringing about shalom for his people and creation. We also learn from Tobit the aspirations of Jews regarding family and marriage.  It was a serious and holy thing rooted in creation and invoking the Presence of God himself as he blesses a marriage with longevity.  The faith of the prayers of Tobit, Tobias and Sarah are in the words of Toni Craven, demonstrate the answer to the question “from where does my help come?” God runs to his people to help them when they call on him in prayer [2].

I love Tobit. It gives us a window into the world of Jesus. It gives us the air that Jesus breathed. Whether we accept it as Scripture, like millions of Christians around the world, matters not.  It is rich and wholesome and brings us closer to the aspirations of God’s people in all times and all places.  And it helps us see Jesus in his own Jewish world with greater clarity and therefore with greater integrity.  I encourage you to pray the prayer of Tobias and Sarah … with your spouse.


1] Unfortunately the Hebrew and Aramaic fragments of Tobit from Cave 4, one that dates to at least 100 B.C., only partially preserve chapter 8.  For an English translation of the Dead Sea Scrolls Tobit see Martin Abegg, Jr, Peter Flint & Eugene Ulrich, The Dead Sea Scrolls Bible (HarperSanFrancisco, 1999), 635-646.  Joseph A. Fitzmyer has published a thorough study of the Hebrew and Aramaic remains of Tobit from Qumran in “The Hebrew and Aramaic Fragments of Tobit from Qumran Cave 4,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 57 (1995): 655-675.  Fitzmyer believes the original language was Aramaic rather than Hebrew but then says that that is not certain by any means.  Fitzmyer has, since this article, published a full scale Commentary on Tobit that I have not been able to consult (out of my price range to buy 🙁  )

2] Toni Craven, “From Where Will My Help Come?: Women and Prayer in the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books,” in Worship and the Hebrew Bible: Essays in Honor of John T. Willis, ed. Patrick Graham, Rick Marrs, and Steven McKenzie, pp. 95-109.  Tobit is covered on pages 99f.

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