Finished up Tobit the night before last. It is always a favorite book to reread because it is such a good story, it has a strong Christological spiritual sense, and it is one of the few places in the Scriptures where dogs are given a positive presence.
In most other places in the Bible, dogs get a bad rap. To be called a dog, a dog’s head, or a dead dog was an insult. Dogs were unclean and ate unclean things- sometimes even human carrion. Apparently, packs of feral dogs roamed in urban areas back then (Ps. 58:7, 15 and Ps. 21:17, 21 [that’s Psalms 59 and 22 in modern Catholic and Protestant Bibles]). Even household dogs are spoken of disparagingly and used as metaphors of dumbness, greediness, or disdainful. Etymologically, the Hebrew word for “dog” is related to the word for a prostitute.
But not so in Tobit! The dog in Tobit is as faithful a hound as Odyseuss’ dog Argos in the Odyssey. Some scholars think that the author of Tobit was consciously imitating Homer here. In neither story does the dog do much, in both cases, they are symbols of faithfulness.
In our manuscript tradition, there are two versions of Tobit, one in the Septuagint and the other in the Vulgate. It is because the dog gets a tiny bit more action in the Vulgate, that I prefer to read Tobit from a Vulgate translation of the book like the Knox or Douay-Rheims. What can I say? I am a dog lover 🙂
In the Septuagint, the only mention of the dog is when Tobias returns home with Raphael, “So they went, and the dog came along behind them.” (Lexham English Septuagint, Tobit 11:4b)
In the Vulgate, we have the dog beginning the journey with Tobias when he catches the fish, “And Tobias went forward, and the dog followed him, and he lodged the first night by the river of Tigris.” (Knox, Tobit 6:1). A faithful dog and fishing! Who could ask for anything more in a story?
Chapter 11 of the Septuagint mentions the dog with the sparse phrase, “and the dog came along behind them” at Tobias’ homecoming as mentioned above.
The Vulgate, on the other hand, gives us a more delightful picture. As Tobias and Raphael hurry home, Tobias’ mother sights him and runs to get Tobit. Then the dog, acting as a herald, confirms the good news of their son’s return, “Yet he (Tobias) was not to reach the house first. The dog that had accompanied him on his travels ran on before him, heralding the good news with the caress of his wagging tail.” (Knox, Tobit 11:9)
Overall, the figure of the dog seems to be a trivial detail in the story. But it was not insignificant to the early Christians. The Venerable Bede, in his ninth-century commentary on Tobit, told us not to dismiss man’s best friend so quickly, “One must not dismiss with scorn the figure of this dog, which is a traveler and the companion of an angel. So, as we have also pointed out above, he represents the church’s teachers who by combating heretics often drive off troublesome wolves (Acts 20:29) from the supreme pastor’s fold (1 Peter 5:4). To them fittingly applies the fact that it is natural to dogs to repay a favor to those who are kind to them and patrol in restless vigil for their masters’ safety. The reason why the dog ran ahead is that the teacher first preaches salvation; then the Lord, the enlightener, cleanses hearts. And the writer made the charming observation, “arriving as if bringing the news,” (Tobit 11:9) because, of course, every sincerely believing teacher is a messenger of truth; charmingly “did he show his joy by wagging his tail,” (Tobit 11:9) for the tail, which is the end of the body, suggests the end of a good work, that is, its perfection, or at any rate the reward that is granted without end. The dog then showed his joy by wagging his tail when he saw once more his master’s homestead from which he was absent for a long time; teachers rejoice at the results of their work when they realize that by means of their ministry Judea is to be brought together again by the Lord; they rejoice at receiving an eternal award, and with this same reward common to all the elect they cheer the hearts of those they preach to when they promise them that Christ’s grace will come without delay” (On Tobit 11.9).