Exegetical Exercise (Acts 9 10-19)

painting of Ananias restoring the sight of Saul aka St Paul
Ananias, per instructions, lays hands on Saul so he may regain his sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit, shown top center

The Uniform Series passage for Sunday, August 20 is Acts 9:10-19, the last part of the episode of Paul (Saul’s) dramatic conversion experience (or, “conversion” experience, if we follow the new scholarship on Paul, which I do, that holds that Paul never stops “being Jewish,” although he does clearly become a disciple of Jesus, Christ) on the road to Damascus. These are the verses that focus on the activity of Ananias, and Ananias’ ministry to Saul. Here are my exegetical notes:

Characters, action, motion: There are three characters in the text: Ananias, the lord – at one point identified as Jesus, and Saul. Ananias does a lot: says – a formulaic response, and a long explanatory speech, answers – in a long speech, departs, enters, lays hands on Saul; the Lord does one thing: says – two long speeches to Ananias; Saul regains his sight, rises, is baptized, takes food, and is strengthened – so, a pair of passive verbs. In this story, or part of the story, things happen to Saul, upon the initiative of the Lord and the intervention of Ananias.

If we include the long speeches, Saul does more: prays and sees, has done evil to the Lord’s saints (past tense) and has authority to bind people who call on the Lord’s name (present tense, with an implication of future action); is a called instrument, to carry the Lord’s name. The Lord will show Saul. Ananias will come in and lay hands on Saul. All the long speeches are focused on Saul, his past, present, and future.

Ananias moves through the text. He begins at or in Damascus – the general place Saul has come to from Jerusalem; he is told to rise and go and follow the Lord’s instructions, hesitates by giving an objection, is told to go again, departs, enters the house – the specific place Saul has come to from Jerusalem, and performs the act of laying on hands on Saul. So Ananias begins alone, sees the Lord, travels to where Saul is, and ends where Saul [and by implication others, who are not mentioned] is. Saul never moves. The Lord doesn’t exactly move and is not tied to a single location, but rather is envisioned by Ananias apparently at the same time the Lord is aware of Saul’s prayer and vision; has appeared to Saul, and will continue to communicate with Saul; is [Christian readers would affirm] present sacramentally to the people in the house in the street called Straight in v 18.

Words: There is an insistent emphasis on sight and the sense of sight throughout the passage. Ananias has a vision (v 10) as Saul is having and has had (v 12, v17); Ananias’ first response to the Lord is “behold, I” (an idiom, “here I am,” the equivalent of Hebrew hineni, but in Greek involving the verb for seeing). Ananias’ work revolves around Saul’s “regaining his sight” (v12, v17, v18), a phrase that is repeated 3 times. The Lord will show Saul what he must suffer (v16). There appears to be a distinction between the kind of seeing that happens spiritually in communication with the Lord (Ananias’ and Saul’s visions) and vision in the world (Saul’s eyesight). Ananias and Saul evidently both have clear spiritual vision.

The passage also emphasizes the sense of hearing, and here there seems to be a distinction between what Ananias hears from the Lord (when the Lord says first his name (v10), then an instruction (vv11-12), and then a repeated instruction with an explanation (vv15-16) and what Ananias hears from “many” about Saul (vv13-14). First, it seems, the Lord has to open Ananias’ ears, so that Ananias can then go be the instrument of opening Saul’s eyes. The words translated “chosen instrument” in v15 literally read an instrument “called out” (eklogēs, called out or chosen, from ek “out of” and λέγω, “to say”). We might want to note that Ananias is literally called out by the Lord in v10 to be an instrument for carrying the Lord’s name, which Ananias speaks explicitly in v17, to Saul, paralleling what the Lord says about Saul in v15.

Further emphasizing hearing, there are a lot of names, proper names, in the passage, and several names are underlined with the formula “called _____”. Even setting aside the place names (Damascus, Tarsus, Jerusalem), there are Ananias; Judas (the house where Saul is staying); Straight (the street “called” Straight); Saul (a man “named”); Jesus (the name of Lord spoken by Ananias). “Calling on” this “name” (v14) is mentioned as one of the things Saul opposes, but which “name” he is now being “called” as an instrument to carry (v15) to kings and Gentiles and the sons/children of Israel (another proper name, the story of which involves a change of name). So Saul is being called by name by one whom people call on, and will subsequently carry this name further. Note, too, that Ananias names Saul “Brother Saul” (v17). Is it a pure coincidence that the “straight” street shares a name with the “straight” path that a voice in the wilderness is crying out to be made, as recalled in Matthew 3:3, Mark 1:3, and Luke 3:4-5? [What are the odds?] And that with all these proper names, “the way by which you came” on which Saul sees the Lord, [named] Jesus, is unnamed?

The house might be a house church, as we understand Christians met in households for worship in these early days. This possibility seems to be strengthened by the report at the end of v18 and beginning of v19 that Saul “rose and was baptized and took food and was strengthened.” The “food” might at least remind us of the bread of communion, whether or not an actual liturgical celebration of communion occurred. Is Saul filled with the Holy Spirit first (v17), before the sacramental performances? The Holy Spirit is at least mentioned first, but then, being “filled with the Holy Spirit” is in Luke-Acts emphatically preparation for ministry.

Concluding comments:
Ananias here sounds like another typical participant in a “call narrative:” addressed by God (“the Lord”), present but raising objections to the task at hand; he really only makes one objection, but it is mighty (“I’ve heard this would be like volunteering to be arrested, taken to Jerusalem, and maybe stoned to death … ”); then going on and following the instructions. In significant ways, Ananias is a model for Saul: responds, has a critical sense correctly oriented by the testimony of the Lord Jesus, relies on spiritual vision [and we presume, faith] rather than alternative testimony, performs a service for Saul, and [Possibly? Probably? Presumably?] participates in a common ritual that closes the narrative. The way Ananias describes his mission (“the Lord has sent me, that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit”) is how Paul will describe his mission in the future. Note, too, that the testimony Ananias has heard is not incorrect; but the spiritual testimony of his vision conveys new information. It is, at least from one perspective, a concrete instance of the grace of Christ setting aside previous trespasses.

Whatever else the passage is about, it is certainly about spiritual clarity: sight, hearing, the obedience of faith bringing about additional clarity (Saul regains his sight; Ananias sees the current state of the Saul he had previously only heard about), culminating in the sacraments and fellowship of the church of Jesus Christ.

Did Ananias know what he was going to set in motion? There’s the evidence of v15, but even with that, that isn’t evidence that he’s going to perform a critical intervention that is going to enable the writer of about half of Christian scripture and the bending of the twig that was to become the tree of Christendom. This may just go to show us that answering the calls we get really matters.

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