The story of the Archangel Raphael is told in the book of Tobit. The book tells the story of a man called Tobit who is an Israelite of the tribe of Naphtali, but who lives in exile. He is an upright man and risks his life to give a proper burial to bodies of Israelites who have been killed. One evening, because it is so hot, he sleeps outside with his face uncovered and is blinded by sparrows’ droppings falling into his eyes.
I went to the physicians to be healed but the more they treated me with ointments the more my vision was obscured by the white films, until I became completely blind.
Meanwhile, in a town some distance away, a relative called Sarah is afflicted by a demon. She had been married to seven husbands, and the wicked demon Asmodeus had killed each of them before they had been with her.
Tobit and Sarah both pray, and God sends an angel to help them. Tobit’s son Tobias sets off, as he thinks, to collect some money from a distant relative, but he is destined to meet Sarah and fall in love and marry her. The angel, Raphael, accompanies Tobias in the guise of a fellow traveler. Tobias’s dog also comes along. On the way they catch an enormous fish. Later Raphael uses the liver and heart of the fish as incense to drive the demon away and the gall of the fish as ointment to heal Tobit’s blindness.
And Raphael was sent to heal both of them: Tobit, by removing the white films from his eyes, so that he might see God’s light with his eyes; and Sarah the daughter of Raguel, by giving her in marriage to Tobias, the son of Tobit, and by setting her free from the wicked demon, Asmodeus.
The name, Raphael, means “God heals.”
It is easy to see why this tale was not included in some Bibles. Though it has a historical setting, it is really a romance. It has more in common with the colorful folklore of the Arabic, Book of One Thousand and One Nights, than with the much more restrained Biblical encounter between Abraham and the angels. Nevertheless, in spite of this, or perhaps because of this, this book has remained popular and was included in the Septuagint translation of the Bible. It finds a place in Roman Catholic, Greek, and Slavonic Bibles, and in the appendix to some Protestant Bibles (the part called the “apocrypha”). The prayer of Tobias and Sarah before they get married is still a common reading at Roman Catholic wedding ceremonies. The book of Tobit is only a dozen pages or so and is full of charming detail. It is a book of the Bible that does not take itself very seriously and is well worth a read.
The image of Raphael and Tobias has been a popular one among artists. Typically Raphael is shown with wings and a halo, next to him is a short and youthful Tobias, who is carrying the fish. Running next to them is a small dog, not a hunting dog but obviously a pet. The three figures are on a journey with a purpose, but a purpose of which Tobias is as yet unaware. It is an image of pilgrimage, of life as a journey, and an image of providence or protection. These themes retain their appeal, and the story has been retold in Salley Vicker’s engaging novel, Miss Garnet’s Angel, which interweaves the ancient romance with a modern fable set in Venice.
Within Orthodox Judaism, the book of Tobit is not regarded as sacred scripture. However, the angel Raphael is named in the Talmud, together with Gabriel and Michael, as one of the angels who came to visit Abraham. Raphael is popular in the Jewish tradition as an angel of healing and was sometimes named on protective amulets, themselves associated with healing and with magic. For most of Jewish history such amulets were a common feature of Judaism, and Jewish amulets were also used by Christians. However, contemporary Judaism follows the more sober opinion of Moses Maimonides that amulets are a form of superstition and have neither religious nor medical value.
Raphael (Israfil) is also know in Islam. The name does not occur in the Quran itself but occurs in a Hadith. In Islam, Israfil is not associated with healing but is the angel who will blow his horn to signal the end of the world and the day of judgment. This is quite close to the role that Christianity gives to the Archangel Michael.
The feast of Raphael is celebrated together with that of Michael and the other angels on September 29th among Roman Catholics and Anglicans, and on November 8th among Eastern Orthodox Christians. Raphael is patron of the sick, especially those with eye problems or mental illness (those “plagued by demons”), and is patron of those who heal the sick, especially pharmacists and apothecaries. He is also patron of lovers and of happy meetings. Raphael is the angel most associated with serendipity.