Big Tobe and Little Tobe
High up within the south-west transept of Liverpool Cathedral is set Edward Carter Preston’s fine sculpture of The Archangel Raphael and the Boy Tobias (1931-2).
A long, long time ago, in a far-away place called Nineveh, there lived two blokes called Tobe, Big Tobe, the dad, and Little Tobe his son (there was also mum Anna; they only had one child, the Little Tobe I’ve referred to). Now, depending on what * you believe, dad was actually Tobit, and his boy was Tobias. Big Tobe was a very caring, charitable bloke, always giving money to all kinds of good causes, and helping people down on their luck, and he was always going on and on at Little Tobe about this, urging him to do the same; but despite Big Tobe’s generosity, things tended to go badly for him; he himself had no luck, except the bad sort, and the family weren’t too well off (well, apart from some sort-of investments he’d made a while ago – we’ll come to that in a bit).
Bad luck: for example, one day he was sleeping by a wall in his garden, as you might, minding his own business, and some sparrows dropped two big dollops on his eyes, yes, and the white stuff actually blinded him. He also went on to Little Tobe quite a bit about living a clean life, not having anything to do with bad ways, booze, and bad women, like trollops and tarts, and that kind of person (“Lewdness is the mother of famine” – was one of his sayings; he could get a bit boring, sometimes).
Actually, Little Tobe was a decidedly virtuous young man anyway, and took note, being very amenable to what dad was saying. Then, finally, after lots more bad luck, Big Tobe decided he would risk sending his boy off to a town called Rages in a country called Media, where he had a mate called Gabael. Some while ago (it gets a bit complicated here), he had entrusted this man with some of his money, thinking of it as a sort of nest-egg. Big Tobe had worked in Media a while back, but then had been unable to take his wages out of the country due to nasty regime-changes (the usual sort of thing); but now things were a lot better over there.
Meanwhile: Big Tobe had a cousin, Raguel, who lived in another town in Media, Ecbatabe. He also had a problem. His only child, a girl named Sara, had been set up to wed, by those arranged marriages, only for the bride-groom, on the wedding night, to be murdered by a really evil number called Asmodeus – seven times this had happened. Raguel, as you can imagine, was at his wit’s end – would he ever have a son-in-law? Grandchildren? But back to Tobe & Tobe: Big Tobe drew up all the papers authorising Gabael to hand over the money to Little Tobe – but the problem was, could he send the boy alone? Surely not, for though Little Tobe was not actually very little, or very young, it was still a long journey, a big undertaking … Fortunately, as chance would have it, Little Tobe met up with a big man called Azarias who knew all about Gabael (indeed, had spent some time with him a while ago), and Raguel and Sara; “I’ll take you!”, he said, and along with Azarias’s camels, servants, and suchlike, off they went. Anna wept quite a lot (mothers!). (Actually, just between us, for the present, Azarias wasn’t who he said he was at all – he was in truth an angel! Yes, really!). Little Tobe also took his dog.
On and on they went. Eventually, they stopped beside a big river, the Tigris, and Little Tobe went down to have a wash. Suddenly, a big fish leapt out of the water, intent on eating him. Azarias rushed up and told Little Tobe to grab it and pull it to land. Easier said than done, was Little Tobe’s reaction, but he managed it all the same. Then, Azarias got him to cut the fish open and take out the heart, liver, and gall-bladder, and keep them in a safe place (odd requests, you might think). Now, little Tobe ate the (rest of the) fish. “Why keep those particular bits you mentioned?”, Little Tobe asked, intrigued. “Well, the heart and the liver are good for …” – but that’s to introduce a plot spoiler. Next, they came by chance (!) to Raguel’s place.
Raguel was overjoyed with the prospect of marrying Sara off to one of his own folks, rather than to one of the local lads – but very much feared that Little Tobe was likely to end up dead on the wedding night (he dug a grave for the lad, just to be safe), but he was generally happy. His wife was Edna; she wept quite a lot (mothers!). This time, though, things were different. Azarias told Little Tobe to carefully heat up ashes, put the heart and liver of the fish on them, thus creating smoke (this was in the marriage-bed chamber, of course). Asmodeus was surely standing by ready to go in for the kill, but the smoke had a really bad effect on him, such that he fled off to Egypt, never (Azarias made sure of it) to return. Little Tobe and Sara were so worn out by the struggle with Asmodeus that they slept all night. Raguel was really surprised to find Little Tobe alive next day; he had to fill the grave in again (actually, the servants did that). Things had worked out well for all (there was much feasting, well, fourteen days of it).
Fourteen days, you would think, is quite enough feasting for anyone, and so the two of them (with the new wife as well, of course, and the generous dowry, and the dog) set off for home, where (as things were done in those days) the real wedding would take place (yet more feasting); besides, mom and dad would be getting concerned. However, Little Tobe asked Azarias to go on to Rages first, with the papers, so that Gabael could release his father’s money, telling him to be sure to bring Gabael back to the wedding, as well. Little Tobe’s mum Anna, as you can imagine, wept again when he returned, though it was a pity Big Tobe could not actually see his boy, new daughter-in-law, Azarias, etc. With Azarias’s help, they set about putting that right. Remember the fish’s gall bladder? Little Tobe rubbed the thing on his father’s eyes, as instructed by the big man; they began to smart; he rubbed them a bit more. Lo and behold, the sparrows’ white stuff fell off them – a result! Joy all round, there was, and much more weeping and feasting.
But what of Azarias? Big Tobe insisted that he be paid well for all his great work. His son, being virtuous also, suggested they give him a complete half of all that had been brought back from Media, and dad agreed readily; but at that moment, Azarias decided to reveal all: he was in fact an angel sent from God (real name: Raphael)(“Didn’t you ever wonder about the fact that I never ate or drank anything? We angels don’t”). “My job was to reward goodness and virtue, to balance things up, set things straight, even up the score, to show that the really good guys don’t always finish last – sometimes they get the girl (and to show you that fish is really good for you).” Big Tobe and Little Tobe could only marvel … it was … amazing … uplifting … life-enhancing (quite: between them, they lived 330 years).
* No. 6 of the Church of England’s Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion (1563) lists the accepted books of the Old Testament in the Protestant Bible. Other books (contained in what is known as The Apocrypha) include The Book of Tobit; Article 6 tells us that these books are to be “read for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet doth it [the Church of England] not apply them to establish any doctrine”. The Roman Catholic Douai translation of the Old Testament, 1609, contains The Book of Tobias, which refers to son, and father, as ‘Tobias’. Modern Catholic bibles are closer to that found in the Apocrypha – which I have used.