The story of Tabitha/Dorcas presents an early mosaic of Christian women
She is a respectable widow who
attends to her spinning (producing garments for the poor)
is a model to the community whose members revere her,
and dedicates her time to good works.
The story is important because it is set in the period of dynamic growth that followed the events of Pentecost, and so is part of the history of the foundation of the Christian churches in the Roman world.
Structure of the story
The story contains four episodes that together form a beautifully constructed vignette:
1 We are introduced to Dorcas/Tabitha and learn she has died of an unknown cause. She has been an admired member of the community, and many people mourn her death.
2 Her friends fetch Peter, hoping that he can help.
3 He comes, prays over her body and, in the upper room of the house, brings her back to life.
4 The event is a pivotal moment in Peter's life, and changes the direction of the early church.
TABITHA/DORCAS DIES, AND MANY PEOPLE MOURN FOR HER
Acts 9:36 Now there was at Joppa a certain disciple (Gr. mathętria, the fem. form of mathętęs. The Church was open to both Men and WOMEN) named Tabitha (Aramaic. The Hebrew for roe or gazelle is Zebee. The Fem. is found in 2 Kings 12:1, there spelled Zibiăh), which being interpreted is called Dorcas (Greek for antelope, or gazelle. Symbolic of the bride of Christ, body of Christ, i.e. the People. Cp. Song of Solomon & Prov.5:19): this woman was full of good works and alms which she did (compassion for the utmost poor).
Acts 9:37 And it came to pass in those days, that she fell sick, and died: whom when they had bathed, they laid her in an upper room. (The symbology here is that the Kenites [= the sons of Cain], were sitting in the seat of Moses and the church was spiritually dead)
Dorcas seems to have been a well-off widow living in the coastal city of Joppa (to see the location of the coastal city of Joppa). The original Greek text describes this widow-woman as 'mathetria', a female disciple - the only time the New Testament uses this word. So immediately we know she is a woman of good repute.
She is always portrayed in artworks and commentary as a holy woman, and that may well have been true. But she also sounds like one of those good-natured women who are so generous-hearted that they are loved by all.
This is reinforced by the next thing we learn about her: she spends her time doing good works and 'acts of charity'. She is therefore an admired member of the community, esteemed by all.
She becomes ill and dies. Her illness is unspecified, but we may assume she was nursed by her friends and family; there was nothing corresponding to a hospital or medical center at that time. Sick people were cared for, and treated, within their own home, by their friends and family.
When she dies, her body is washed and cared for and then laid out in an upper room. It was the women’s task to prepare a dead body for burial. The body was washed, and hair and nails were cut. Then it was gently wiped with a mixture of spices and wrapped in linen strips of various sizes and widths. While this was being done, prayers from the Scriptures were read.
The 'upper room' has special significance in the Christian story. An upper room was the scene of the Last Supper in Jerusalem, and it is mentioned twice, pointedly, in the story of Tabitha. It is a space that is removed from the hurly-burly of the ground-floor courtyard and public rooms, a relatively quiet place where contact with God might take place.
PETER IS SUMMONED, AND RESPONDS
Acts 9:38 And forasmuch as Lydda was near to Joppa (Lit. Lydda being near), and the disciples had heard that Peter was in it, they sent to him two men (here we have a double witness), entreating him that he would not delay to come as far as them.
Acts 9:39 Then Peter arose and went with them. When he was come, they brought him into the upper chamber: and all the widows stood by him weeping, and shewing the tunics (or under-garments) and garments which Dorcas made, while she was with them. (Not much faith. They gave up pretty easy. Don't hang around these kind of people that let the Word die. They have no backbone)
Ritual mourning follows her death. She has many friends, and they all wish to show their respect and affection by openly grieving.
Mourning was not a restrained activity in the ancient Middle East. People showed their grief by wailing, crying, and tearing the upper part of their woven garment. The more noise, the more the dead person was loved.
But then someone has an idea. The people in Dorcas' house, described also as 'disciples', hear that Peter is in nearby Lydda. They send two men to get him and bring him to Dorcas' house - no doubt the widows of Tabitha's circle of friends had many sons and nephews who could be roped in for this sort of task.
Peter responds immediately, and his journey is significant. It is a twelve-mile walk to Joppa, and by travelling there Peter is moving to the limits of Judean territory - further away from Jerusalem, which at that time was hostile to the infant Christian church.
Peter is taken to Tabitha's body, laid out in the upper room of her house. Her friends are gathered around her body. They show Peter the garments she has made for the poor. The evidence for a well-lived life is there for all to see.
PETER RAISES DORCAS FROM THE DEAD
Acts 9:40 But Peter put them all outside, and knelt down (same expression as in 7:60), and prayed; and turning him to the body said, “Tabitha, arise.” And she opened her eyes: and when she saw Peter, she sat up. (The symbology is that the Gospel through the disciples brought back life to the bride of Christ.)
Acts 9:41 And he gave her his hand, and lifted her up (Lit. caused her to rise up), and when having the saints and widows, presented her alive.(The Holy Spirit did this through Peter. Peter did not do it. Symbology is presented the church alive, ready to go.)
Acts 9:42 And it came to be known (see note on 1:19) throughout all Joppa; and many believed in Jesus.
Acts 9:43 And it came to pass, that he abode many days (Gr. menő. 7 years after the Resurrection of Christ [#7 = spiritual completeness, perfection]) in Joppa with a certain Simon a tanner (Gr. burseus. Perhaps no one else would receive him).
Peter is moved by their grief, but he puts them outside so that the room becomes peaceful and quiet again. There is only him and the body of Dorcas.
He kneels and prays, facing away from the body - perhaps to focus his entire mind on God.
Then he turns to Dorcas' body. Using her Hebrew name, Tabitha, and drawing on the same source of power that Jesus had, the Divine power of God and the Holy Spirit, he commands her to get up. The dead body responds. She opens her eyes, sees Peter, and sits up. He extends his hand to her and raises her up into a standing position.
Then he summons her friends from outside, who see with their own eyes what has happened. Acts does not attempt to describe their gaping amazement. It simply records that because of this, many people believed in the Lord - as well they might!
But it is important to see that there are two dimensions to the raising of Tabitha:
she is restored to life and
she is returned to her friends and community.
THE IMPACT ON PETER
Up until this moment, Peter believed it was his mission to convert the Israeli people.
At Joppa there is a significant change in his attitude. It is as if, after the raising of Dorcas, Peter realizes he has a more profound role to play in human history.
Acts 10 reports he had a dream and realized that 'God shows no partiality' (Acts 10:34). From this moment, Peter knows he must convert Gentiles as well as Israel to belief in Jesus Christ. This was one of Luke's points when he wrote the Acts of the Apostles.
General Focus Questions for Bible Stories
1. What are the most interesting moments in the story? Why do these particular moments appeal to me?
2. In the story, who speaks and who listens? Who acts? Who gets what they want? If you were in the story, which person would you want to be friends with? Which person would you want to avoid?
3. What is God's interaction with the main characters?
4. What is happening on either side of the story, in the chapters before and after it? Does this help you understand what is happening?
5. Are the characteristics and actions of the people in the story still present in the world? How is the story relevant to modern life, especially your own?