The Uniform Series text for Sunday, February 18 is Acts 9:36-43, the story of Tabitha / Dorcas raised from the dead. Here are my notes on that text:
First Impressions: although this isn’t a very familiar text, it is one that has come up in the lectionary before; a miracle story, one of the stories that people struggle with sometimes on that account; there is a lot of emphasis on the featured character’s name, which “translated” means “gazelle” – and do we name people after animals? (“Bunny,” maybe, or “Birdie,” or “Kitten” … I did know a girl in high school named “Bambi” … but it’s not common, is it?) The description of the place is disjointed … where is she? The “room upstairs” is like the room in Elijah’s raising the Shunammite woman’s son, perhaps (2 Kings 4:8-34)? Or the upper room where the disciples eat their last dinner with Jesus (Luke 22:12)? What are the disciples in Joppa expecting from Peter, when they send for him? Peter’s main act seems to be prayer.
Context: This story occurs right before the longer story about Cornelius, and is part of the set up for it – it is the event that brings Peter to Joppa and the home of Simon the tanner. We are well into the events of Acts; the church is growing and thriving and Peter has assumed a significant role right away, preaching and healing right at the beginning; Ananias and Sapphira have been caught red-handed trying to lie to the Holy Spirit; Stephen has been made a witness to the faith; Philip has had a ministry in Samaria and to the eunuch from Ethiopia; Saul has just been stopped in his tracks on the road to Damascus, so all kinds of things are going on. Back to Peter, he has been going “here and there among all the believers” (9:32) and immediately before our story has healed a bedridden man, Aeneas.
Joppa and Lydda look on a map to be about 10 miles apart or so; from Jerusalem to Joppa looks to be about 30 miles. So they really are close. Joppa is right on the Mediterranean.
Closer Reading: The woman in the story has a Hebrew name, Tabitha, that “translated through says” Dorcas – both of which mean “gazelle.” The Greek translation of the Hebrew Tabitha seems to be provided for readers more familiar with Greek. She is “full” of good works and creative acts (poiesis) of charity. “At that time” – it seems, right as Peter is in Lydda healing a paralyzed man – this exemplary disciple becomes ill and dies, which sets the main events of the story in motion.
The disciples in Joppa do exactly four things in this story: they wash Tabitha / Dorcas – should we think of baptism? – and lay her in a room upstairs – should we think communion? – they hear that Peter is in Lydda, and they send two men to ask him to come to Joppa.
If we go by who has the most verbs in the story, Peter is the main actor. He gets up and goes with the disciples from Joppa; arrives there from Lydda; receives the testimony of the widows who show him all the clothing Tabitha / Dorcas has made – is there something specifically significant about this act of making clothing for people? Then, Peter sends everyone out of the room, kneels down, and prays – in this, more like Elijah in 2 Kings 4 than like Jesus in Luke 8:51, although overall Peter’s healing of Tabitha also parallels Jesus’ healing of the synagogue leader’s daughter in Luke 8. Peter speaks to “the body” using words parallel to those Jesus uses in Luke 8:54 – although Luke doesn’t have Jesus use the Aramaic phrase “Talitha, cum,” as Mark does, which would echo even more strongly with the name of the disciple Tabitha. When Tabitha opens her eyes, Peter gives her a hand, and she rises up by stages. Peter can then “show her to be alive” to the “disciples and widows” – sufficiently different, it seems, to be distinguished. The phrase “show her to be alive” might make us think that, for Christians, all the saints are thought to be alive after death … we just don’t always see it as concretely as in this story. When Jesus heals the little girl in Luke 8 he tells her parents not to tell anyone; when Peter heals Tabitha, however, everyone in Joppa hears about it, and “many believed in the Lord” (v42).
Comments: The text seems like a very straightforward narrative. The description of place around Tabitha / Dorcas is maybe a little oddly placeless – no particular house or place, not her house or anyone’s house in particular, just “a room upstairs,” we don’t know upstairs of what or where. Practically, it must be someone’s, maybe the house where the church meets in Joppa, but for the purposes of the story it’s just “a room upstairs,” which does re-enact the place where the disciples last eat with Jesus.
It might be fair to say there is an emphasis on requesting. The disciples ask Peter to come to them, to be there with them. Not anything more specific than that. Then Peter asks God – we presume, since he kneels in prayer – nothing specific that we are told, but there’s that invocation of the presence of God with the act of prayer. Then, there is life in the place of death. So the story has the shape of the Christian narrative: washing, communion, life. When Peter calls the disciples, he shows them life. The story itself calls more disciples – by implication, because it is a remarkable story of new life, of the power of “the Lord” to bring about new life.