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Acts 9:36-43 Biblical Commentary:
Chapter 9 began with Saul’s Damascus road vision and his subsequent conversion (vv. 1-19a)—his preaching in Damascus synagogues (vv. 19b-22)—his escape from Jews who were plotting to kill him (vv. 23-25)—and his journey to Jerusalem and subsequent escape from a second plot to kill him (vv. 26-30). This was followed by a brief note about the growth of the church (v. 31).
The chapter concludes with the stories of two healings. The first was the healing of a man, Aeneas, who had been paralyzed for eight years (vv. 32-35). The second is our text, which tells of the healing or resuscitation of Tabitha (also known as Dorcas), a woman who died (vv. 36-43). Luke, the author of both the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles, includes three other paired male-female stories in his Gospel (Luke 1:11-20 and 26-38—2:25-35 and 36-38—24:1-12 and 13-35).
Luke writes the stories of Aeneas and Tabitha as a story-pair. While it is unusual for the names of healed persons to be included in healing stories, both Aeneas and Tabitha are named in these two stories. Another common element is that Peter commands both Aeneas and Tabitha to “get up” (Greek: anastethi— vv. 34 and 40).
There are a number of parallels between the resuscitation of Tabitha and the story of Elijah reviving the widow’s son (1 Kings 17:17-24)—and the story of Elisha reviving the Shunammite woman’s son (2 Kings 4:32-37)—and Jesus reviving the widow’s son at Nain (Luke 7:11-17)—and Jesus reviving Jairus’ daughter (Luke 8:49-56). The stories of Elijah and Elisha would be quite familiar to Jewish people, who would easily recognize the parallels.
These two healings (Aeneas and Tabitha) take place respectively in Lydda (located 23 miles or 37 km northwest of Jerusalem) and Joppa (located 11 miles or 18 km northwest of Lydda on the Mediterranean coast). Lydda and Joppa are both located in Judea. After Peter heals Tabitha, he will journey to another Judean city, Caesarea, which is located about 34 miles (55 km) north of Joppa on the Mediterranean coast. There he will see a vision that will lead to the church opening its doors to Gentiles.
Peter is the most prominent apostle throughout the first twelve chapters of the book of Acts. However, beginning with chapter 13, Saul will become dominant. After that, we will hear of Peter only once more in this book, when Peter defends the ministry of Paul and Barnabas to the Gentiles (15:7-11).
ACTS 9:36-38. A DISCIPLE NAMED TABITHA (DORCAS)
36Now there was at Joppa a certain disciple named Tabitha, which when translated, means Dorcas. This woman was full of good works and acts of mercy which she did. 37It happened in those days that she fell sick, and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in an upper room. 38As Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, hearing that Peter was there, sent two men to him, imploring him not to delay in coming to them.
“Now there was at Joppa a certain disciple named Tabitha, which when translated, means Dorcas” (v. 36a). As noted above, Joppa is the second of three stops on Peter’s Judean tour (Lydda being the first and Caesarea being the third).
Luke notes that Tabitha is a disciples—a believer. Tabitha is her Aramaic name (Aramaic is a Semitic language used by most Jewish people in New Testament times). Tabitha means gazelle—a graceful, lovely antelope. Since many of the people for whom Luke is writing this history of the early church understand Greek but not Aramaic, Luke tells them the word for gazelle in Greek, which is Dorcas.
“This woman was full of good works and acts of mercy” (v. 36b). In verse 39, we will learn that Tabitha gave tunics and other clothing to widows. However, there is no reason to assume that her good works and charities were limited to these gifts of clothing. It seems likely that her charitable disposition would have led her to many other acts of charity as well.
It seems quite possible that Tabitha was a woman of means. However, many people who are known for their acts of charity are not wealthy. People who have experienced financial hardship understand how difficult that can be—and how a small act of charity can serve to remedy that difficulty. However, we can be sure that Tabitha was not an impoverished widow. She has the means to share generously with others.
“It happened in those days that she fell sick, and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in an upper room” (v. 37). Jewish people consider proper burial a religious duty. Typical preparations for burial included washing the body, anointing it with burial spices such as frankincense and myrrh, and wrapping the body in cloth.
While Jewish people were aware of embalming, they did not usually practice it. Nor did they have refrigeration to preserve bodies. Thus their usual practice was to bury the body not later than sunset on the day of the person’s death.
“As Lydda was near Joppa” (v. 38a). The distance of 11 miles (18 km) would require about three hours to walk—and another three to return. These men, on an urgent mission, might make the round trip in four hours, but hardly less.
“the disciples, hearing that Peter was there, sent two men to him” (v. 38b). When dealing with an urgent mission, it makes sense to send two messengers. In the event that one cannot continue, the other can carry on—and two heads are better than one. Luke tells of other situations where two people were chosen for a task (10:7; 19:22; 23:23).
“imploring him not to delay in coming to them” (v. 38c). The tone of their request is urgent, which causes us to wonder what they expect Peter to do. Perhaps they are asking him to help those who are grieving, but it seems more likely that they have heard of miracles conducted elsewhere and hope that Peter will work a miracle at Joppa. They believe that the soul remains in the vicinity for a time, but that it passes permanently into Sheol on the third day.
ACTS 9:39-41. TABITHA, GET UP!
39Peter got up and went with them. When he had come, they brought him into the upper room. All the widows stood by him weeping, and showing the coats and garments which Dorcas had made while she was with them. 40Peter put them all out, and kneeled down and prayed. Turning to the body, he said, “Tabitha, get up!” She opened her eyes, and when she saw Peter, she sat up. 41He gave her his hand, and raised her up. Calling the saints and widows, he presented her alive.
“Peter got up and went with them. When he had come, they brought him into the upper room. All the widows stood by him weeping, and showing the coats and garments which Dorcas had made while she was with them” (v. 39). Widow is a word with special meaning in scripture. Because women were dependent on their husbands for financial support, a widow could easily find herself impoverished and vulnerable. Because of this, Jewish law made special provisions for the care of widows (Leviticus 22:13; Deuteronomy 14:28-29; 16:10-14; 24:19-21; 25:5), and the prophets emphasized the care of widows as a religious obligation (Isaiah 1:17; 10:2; Jeremiah 7:6; 22:3; Zechariah 7:10; Malachi 3:5). The early church made special provisions for widows (Acts 6:1-6; 1 Timothy 5:3-16). Tabitha’s charity to these widows marks her as a devout person.
“Peter put them all out, and kneeled down and prayed. Turning to the body, he said, “Tabitha, get up!” She opened her eyes, and when she saw Peter, she sat up” (v. 40). There are several significant parallels between this resuscitation and the resuscitation of Jarius’ daughter by Jesus—especially as recorded in the Gospel of Mark (Mark 5:22-24, 35-43; see also Luke 8:49-56). These parallels include:
• Death (v. 37; Mark 5:35; Luke 8:49).
• Weeping people (v. 39; Mark 5:38; Luke 8:52).
• Sending the crowd outside (v. 40; Mark 5:40).
But the most significant parallel is the similarity of Jesus’ words to Jairus’ daughter and Peter’s words to Tabitha.
In Luke’s account of the raising of Jairus’ daughter, Jesus said “Child, arise!” (Greek: pais egeire—Luke 8:54). However, Mark reports Jesus’ command to Jairus’ daughter in Aramaic—not Greek. In Aramaic Jesus’ words were “Talitha cumi,” which means “Girl, I tell you, get up!” (Mark 5:41). It is quite unusual that Mark uses Aramaic to report Jesus’ command. The New Testament includes only a few Aramaic words or phrases. The only ones of which I am aware are as follows:
• Matthew 27:46 (“Eli, Eli, lima sabachthani”)
• Mark 5:41 (“Talitha cumi”)
• Mark 7:34 (“Ephphatha”)
• Mark 15:34 (“Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani”)
• John 1:42 (“Cephas”)
• Acts 9:36, 40 (“Tabitha”—used twice)
• 1 Corinthians 1:12 (“Cephas”)
• 1 Corinthians 16:22 (“Marana tha”)
• Mark 3:17 (“Boanerges” could be Aramaic or Hebrew)
• Mark 15.22 (“Golgotha” could be Aramaic or Hebrew)
When Luke reports Peter’s command as “Tabitha, get up,” he combines Aramaic (Tabitha) and Greek (anastethi—”Get up!”).
Even though Luke uses Greek to report Peter’s command to Tabitha to “get up,” Peter would have spoken Aramaic rather than Greek to Tabitha. His words would therefore have been, “Tabitha, cum!”—only one letter different than Jesus’ words to Jairus’ daughter. Most Jewish Christians of that day would speak Aramaic, and they would usually hear this story told in Aramaic. The parallel between “Talitha cumi” (Mark 5:41) and “Tabitha, cum” (Acts 9:40) would be obvious to them. One point of the story is that Peter does things as Jesus did—and shares Jesus’ healing power.
“He gave her his hand, and raised her up. Calling the saints and widows, he presented her alive” (v. 41). Peter first worked the miracle and then called the witnesses into the room to see that Tabitha was alive.
ACTS 9:42-43. PETER STAYED IN JOPPA WITH SIMON, A TANNER
42And it became known throughout all Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. 43It happened, that he stayed many days in Joppa with one Simon, a tanner.
“And it became known throughout all Joppa, and many believed in the Lord” (v. 42). In the parallel story—the healing of Aeneas—people responded in the same way (9:35).
“It happened, that he stayed many days in Joppa with one Simon, a tanner” (v. 43). A tanner is a person who processes animal skins to turn them into leather. The process involves scraping the skins to remove hair and flesh and then applying certain plant juices or chemicals. A modern article on the subject of tanning mentions rubbing the skins with the dung of carnivores, especially dogs, because carnivore dung “contains an enzyme that digests collagen, which is an elastic component of the hide.” The dung is then washed from the hide, which is then soaked in a mixture of water and crushed oak bark, which provides tannin, an essential ingredient of the tanning process. Other processes are mentioned, such as rubbing both sides of the skin with a broth made by boiling the animal’s brain and then letting the brain broth soak into the hide for 6-8 hours. By happy coincidence, the brain of an animal is almost always just the right size to tan that animal’s skin (http://www.alpharubicon.com/primitive/tanningdragoona.htm).
It is not difficult to imagine, then, why tanning would be considered a lowly profession or why you might prefer not to have a tanner as a neighbor. “The Mishnah compares the tanner’s uncleanness to that of persons afflicted with boils or polyps or who collected dogs’ excrement. Some rabbis even required tanners and others who lived in such uncleanness to ‘put away their wives’, that is, they did not require women to remain married to such men (see m. Ket. 7.10)” (Chance, 163).
However, I have not been able to find anything in Levitical law that would prohibit a person from pursuing a tanner’s trade as long as he limited himself to the hides of clean animals that had been properly slaughtered. A person would become unclean by touching an unclean animal or an animal that had died (but, presumably, not an animal that has been properly slaughtered) (Leviticus 11:24-40).
The instructions for the construction of the tabernacle specifically mention “rams’ skins and fine leather” as essential materials (Exodus 35:7). That passage calls “all who are skillful (to) make all that the Lord has commanded” (Exodus 35:10).
At any rate, it seems odd that Peter (or anyone else) would choose to live with a tanner. It suggests a surprising flexibility in Peter’s usually rigid personality. Walasky sees this as foreshadowing the flexibility regarding the law that the Lord will impose upon Peter in the next chapter.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Barclay, William, Daily Study Bible: Acts, (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1976)
Bock, Darrell L., Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: Acts (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007)
Bruce, F. F., The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Book of Acts (Revised)(Grand Rapids: William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988)
Chance, J. Bradley, The Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: Acts (Macon, Georgia: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Inc., 2007)
Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; McCann, J. Clinton; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV–Year C (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994)
Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holliday, Carl R.; and Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, C (Valley Forge: Trinity Press, 1994)
Faw, Chalmer E., Believers Church Bible Commentary: Acts, (Scottdale, Pennsyvania: Herald Press, 1993)
Gaventa, Beverly Roberts, Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: The Acts of the Apostles (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003)
Marty, Martin E., in Van Harn, Roger (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Text. The First Readings: The Old Testament and Acts (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001)
Polhill, John B., New American Commentary: Acts, Vol. 26 (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992)
Wall, Robert W., The New Interpreter’s Bible: Acts, Romans, I Corinthians, Vol. X (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002)
Walaskay, Paul W., Westminster Bible Companion: Acts (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998)
Williams, David J., New International Biblical Commentary: Acts (Paternoster Press, 1995)
Willimon, William H., Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching: Acts (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988)
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