In Joppa there was a disciple named Tabitha (which, when translated, is Dorcas), who was always doing good and helping the poor. (Acts 9.36)
The first in a series on Great Women in Scripture.
Years ago, I attended a lecture by the great Southern writer, Eudora Welty. In the Q&A segment someone asked what were her perennial favorites. “The Bible is the only book I read again and again. It never gets old for me,” she replied. When someone else questioned how she refreshed over-told stories like David and Goliath, Ms. Welty offered an ingenious method. Approach them imaginatively, she advised, like a director who tinkers with a classic play’s setting. It forces new perspectives on the reading, just as watching Hamlet in street clothes can reveal previously unnoticed nuances. Read David and Goliath as a modern war story, for example, and the villain’s weapons make him think he’s invulnerable. When David kills him with a pistol shot, the story becomes a warning about false hubris. Or set it in the Civil Rights era. While Southerners who know prejudice is evil tremble on the sidelines, a young Northerner confronts the Klan. Now the story is about irrational fear created by irrational hatred.
Following Ms. Welty’s suggestion, I’ve been reading The Acts of the Apostles as an Old West chronicle, envisioning first-century Christians as pioneers migrating across new territory, building new settlements, and dealing with new challenges. The transposed setting perfectly fits the book’s rough-and-tumble, episodic structure. It casts the Apostles’ bravado in a heroic aura reminiscent of stolidly principled, though often troubled good guys played by John Wayne, Henry Fonda, and Gregory Peck. While believers cobble together makeshift churches, Peter, Paul, and a few others roam the land to help and defend the pioneers. They get arrested, pursued by angry mobs, tried in kangaroo courts, and run out of town. Basically, Acts is one showdown after another, with a few amazing incidents sandwiched in between. One of these, the story of Dorcas, is a personal favorite. Occupying all of eight verses in Acts 9, it’s little more than a quick recap of a miracle. Yet, when I recently reread it in my new “Western” context, it surged with fresh life.
Gentle, Energetic, and Graceful
Dorcas’s story is attached to another tale that puts Peter in Lydda, where he heals a bedridden man. The miracle inspires everyone in Lydda and an adjacent hamlet, Sharon, to follow Christ. The total conversion of two villages should merit extended coverage. But Luke, Acts’ author, scoots ahead to nearby Joppa, where details he reveals up-front about Dorcas immediately pique interest. His lead sentence reads, “In Joppa there was a disciple named Tabitha (which, when translated, is Dorcas), who was always doing good and helping the poor.” (Acts 9.36) He identifies her as a disciple, indicating she was a fervent, prominent figure in the Joppa church. Her notability for “doing good and helping the poor” confirms this. And Luke’s focus on her name—“Tabitha,” as she’s called in provincial Aramaic, as well as the Greek “Dorcas”—is very telling, as both mean “gazelle.” Thus, we picture Dorcas as a gentle, energetic, and graceful woman who’s sorely missed when she falls ill and dies.
Local disciples send two men to catch Peter before he leaves Lydda. Without specifying how they hope Peter can help, Luke uses their urgency to imply Peter’s heroic reputation precedes him and he’s often summoned to address situations beyond other disciples’ control. That he arrives without delay indicates Dorcas is a stabilizing, positive force her church and community can’t do without. Verse 39 says when Peter enters the room where her body rests, “All the widows stood around him, crying and showing him the robes and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was still with them.” For all the good she’s achieved, Peter surmises she’s not done yet. He dismisses the mourners and calls her: “Tabitha, get up.” (v40) She opens her eyes and takes Peter’s hand as he lifts her up. Her resuscitation persuades many to follow Christ. Before this, though, Peter calls the believers and widows, and presents Dorcas to them. (v41) He restores order much like a Western hero rides into town and ends its turmoil. And in the same way, he hangs around until things fully return to normal. Verse 43 reports, “Peter stayed in Joppa for some time with a tanner named Simon.”
The Old West filter doesn’t enhance Luke’s portrait of Dorcas. Like all committed, caring women, she’s timeless. But recasting her story as a frontier tale heightens the sense of how tragically her loss is felt and why Peter rushes to reverse it. Joppa needs Dorcas. She’s irreplaceable. Proverbs 18.16 says, “A gift opens the way for the giver.” Dorcas’s gifts as a seamstress open ways for her to free impoverished people from shame and reawaken their pride. Her death spells the end of dignity for many who looked to her for inner healing and personal strength. Had Dorcas squelched her talent or lost touch with it, her loss wouldn’t even be worth mentioning. Because she uses her gifts, her death is simply unacceptable.
Her story isn’t extraordinary. It’s exemplary. We’re all irreplaceable. The good we do arises from sensibilities uniquely our own. Our talents open ways to help others as only we can. Yet when we minimize or drift from gifts God has given us, we essentially die. We’re numb to the loss, but our absence is a tragedy for those who need help. For all the good we’ve accomplished, we’re not done yet. There’s more—much, much more—we can do. Death is simply unacceptable. It’s time to get up, spring back to life, and fill the void we’d otherwise leave behind.
No talent is too trivial or small. When we minimize or drift from gifts God has given us, we create a void in lives that need help.
(Next: Hand-Me-Down Faith)