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Published Date: October 13, 2022

Published Date: October 13, 2022

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Women in Scripture and Mission: Tabitha

For much of my life, I’ve been called “Debbie’s daughter” more than my own name. My mom worked in churches my whole life—so at every church activity and event, I was “Debbie’s daughter.” In college when I interned for a church where my mom was a beloved leader, I immediately felt the weight of those expectations. I was setting up food for volunteers, and one of the women declared to the group, “Kaitlyn can make these desserts look pretty, she’s Debbie’s daughter.” I did not live up to the expectations of my mother’s legacy. 

Whoever our families are, we’ve probably felt that weight—of being someone’s sibling or son or niece or grandchild. We struggle to meet the expectations that come with those roles, especially as our families, ourselves, and the world changes. Tabitha’s story is the story of a woman who very likely did not “fit” the family mold. 

Tabitha is introduced in Acts 9:36–43. Some scholars think Tabitha was a widow: she was living among and caring for widows, her husband or children are not named, and she devoted her attention to serving the church. Some scholars think she was an unmarried young woman, perhaps even a formal benefactor, occupying a role of significance and status in a patronage society.1  

However, these descriptions answer questions that the text doesn’t invite us to ask. These descriptions struggle to fit her into the patriarchal family structure of the time—to figure out the answer to a question that was very relevant, that early readers would have asked too: who do you belong to? Where do you fit? What role do you play? 

Yet Luke describes something strange and foreign to people of that time (and very often to us today): that her marital status, family position, or social status do not matter. Essentially, where she fits into a biological or nuclear family does not matter. Where she fits into the kingdom of God matters immensely.  

The New Family of God 

“Family” is crucially important in the Bible, but maybe not in the ways we often think. Christians in the US have adopted a narrow definition of “family” influenced by the American dream: mom, dad, two-and-a-half kids, pets, white picket fence. But “family” in the Bible works differently. The Old Testament has a high emphasis on family—on marriage, procreation, the lineage of the people of God defined by nationality and birth. Yet even in the Old Testament we see God’s plan to explode our concepts of family. God gives Abraham a commission to create a people who would be a blessing to the nations. Rahab joins the people of God from the outside. Ruth, a foreigner, stays with her mother-in-law after her husband dies, a striking picture of “family” as she says, “Your people will be my people” (Ruth 1:16).  

The New Testament explodes our idea of family even more: Jesus repeatedly defines “family” not by biological boundary but by faithfulness to God (Matthew 12:46–50; Luke 11:27–28). Family is no longer about where you “fit” biologically, socially, nationally, or ethnically. It is about belonging to a new family, the family of God. 

This is expressed beautifully in the description of Tabitha: “A disciple” (Acts 9:36). This is the only time in the New Testament that the feminine form of the Greek word for disciple (μαθήτρια), is used. Tabitha is not the only woman disciple in the New Testament, by far. The plural masculine forms of the word “disciples” does not automatically signify a group of only men. It is used many times in the New Testament in contexts that include women (Luke 8:1-10; Matthew 12:49). But this special use of the feminine form of “disciple” is not inconsequential. Tabitha, as a woman, would be defined in her social setting most often by her family: whose daughter she was, who she was married to, what sons she had. But here she is defined as a woman by her real title, her real source of status and significance, her real family: the family of God.  

Then Luke describes what a member of the family of God looks like: “She was devoted to good works and acts of charity” (Acts 9:36 NRSV). Tabitha was known in her larger community for serving the people she loved. Later in the narrative, we get a striking detail about her death that tells us much about her life: the widows she lived with and served bring Peter the tunics she made them (Acts 9:39). They aren’t expecting him to heal her, probably. They are not chastised in the text for trying to buy his miracle services. They bring him these pieces of clothing to say, “This is who this woman we are grieving was.” She loved us. We loved her. Look at this proof! 

Clothed with Righteousness 

 Like family, clothing is significant in the Bible. It is one of the earliest forms of God’s grace in response to our sin. Adam and Eve use uncomfortable fig leaves to cover themselves, but God gives them clothes. The language of being “clothed” in righteousness is all over the place—from Isaiah 61 to Job 29—and the New Testament uses the language of “put on” the new self or Christ, drawing on clothing imagery (Ephesians 4:24, Colossians 3:10). 

The women came to Peter with these clothes because they represented the care and protection they received from Tabitha. Without the protection and provision of men, many widows could end up destitute—it’s one reason that throughout all of Scripture they are described as a special class of people to be defended, protected, and cared for. Tabitha honored these women by making them clothes. She was clothed with righteousness by clothing others.  

Tabitha is not praised for typical womanly virtues of her time (or of ours): for running a good household, or for being quiet, chaste, graceful, pure, or delicate. Her good works are not directed toward her husband or her children but toward her larger community, her very real family.  

Tabitha is a reminder to us that women have always played a crucial role in serving, growing, and leading the church. Some scholars see in this passage either a forerunner or an actual description of the order of widows in the church. This was a formal system of caring for vulnerable women, yes, but also a source of authority, service, and leadership in the church.2 Kat Armas, a writer, podcaster, and scholar, says in her book Abuelita Faith “a woman disciple, who is often overlooked in our conversations, was of utmost importance in the story of the early church – so much so, that her life was worthy of resurrection.”3 

Tabitha, Arise! 

 Even more remarkable than Tabitha’s background and service is that she was brought back from the dead. Tabitha’s resurrection reinforces her worth in the community, but it also reinforces the beautiful story of family in Acts 9.  

 Tabitha’s story has a lot of parallels with other similar stories in the Bible. In 1 Kings 17, 2 Kings 4, and Luke 7, Elijah, Elisha, and Jesus all raise a boy from the dead. In each of these stories, the boy’s mother is either a widow or fears she will soon become one. For these women, if their only sons die, they will be without support or protection. The point is implicit: the miracle not only raises a man from the dead but also provides for these vulnerable widows.  

 In Tabitha’s story, the same dynamic is at play. But in the new family of God it is not just the biological sons of these women who have responsibility for them, who are obligated to care for their needs, and who can serve them in intimate and significant ways. No, in this story it is an unrelated woman. She is raised for the sake of her family—the family of God.  

 This story also has parallels with another miracle of Jesus: the story of raising Jairus’s daughter. There is a similar pattern of healing. Jesus makes the mourners leave except for his inner circle and her parents, just as Peter has the other people leave the room. Peter takes her by the hand, as Jesus did. But the most striking similarity is what they say. Luke’s account translates what Jesus said into Greek, but Mark keeps the original Aramaic words: Talitha koum! Little girl, get up!  

At the beginning of the story, Luke tells us that Tabitha was her Aramaic name, but her Greek name was Dorcas. He is writing to an audience that did not primarily speak Aramaic and may have had limited familiarity with other Jewish cultural and religious details. So Luke uses Tabitha’s Greek name “Dorcas.” But when we get to the pivotal moment in the story, Luke tells us that Peter said to her “Tabitha, get up.” In Aramaic he would have said, “Tabitha koum!”4 

Jesus said to a little girl, the child of a prominent man, a leader in the synagogue, “Talitha koum!”  

And Peter says to this grown woman, faithful and humble in her service of widows, “Tabitha koum!”  

From a young girl to an older woman, from the child of someone important in the temple, to a woman dearly important to the people of God in her own right—they are both told to arise. They are both dearly valued by God and celebrated in their communities because of the miracle God has done.  

There’s another reason it’s significant that Peter uses her Aramaic name. Our names matter. Our names often connect us to our families—in ways we love or hate. Our names are often culturally specific, and it is painful when someone doesn’t take the time to learn how to say them. Our brains release dopamine and serotonin when we hear our name.5 Peter said her name—the name she knew in her heart that came from her cultural background, and that she grew up hearing her mother yell and her siblings taunt. Tabitha, arise.  

And she does. We do not regularly experience these things—people rising from the dead. But Tabitha’s story is intended to be imitated, intended to describe an ordinary woman who served her community faithfully and fully. What are we to make of this wild miracle, one that is not common today and was certainly not common then either?  

Tabitha’s story is an example of the high value of women in the church, the importance of treating each other like the family we truly are, and a reminder to live oriented toward the kingdom of God. The brilliant scholar Willie James Jennings says in his commentary on Acts, “This woman matters, and the work she does for widows matters to God. It matters so much that God will not allow death the last word. . . . Tabitha is an activist who lives again in resurrection power.”6 

Tabitha lived like the kingdom of God had actually arrived, like Jesus had actually risen from the dead, and like that actually put demands upon her life—her time, resources, relationships, and her sense of belonging, community, and loyalty. She was adopted into a new family, she had new family members to care for, and her time and resources were not her own. Someone who served like the kingdom of God had arrived got a special taste of it—new life.  

Notes

  1. Craig S. Keener, Acts: An Exegetical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013), 2: 1716.
  2. John B. Polhill, Acts, The New American Commentary 26 (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1992), 247
  3.  Kat Armas, Abuelita Faith: What Women on the Margins Teach Us about Wisdom, Persistence, and Strength (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2021), 91.
  4. F. F. Bruce, The Book of the Acts, NICNT 5 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1988), 199.
  5. Dennis P. Carmody and Michael Lewis, “Brain Activation When Hearing One’s Own and Others’ Names,” Brain Res, 2006 Oct 20, doi: 10.1016/j.brainres.2006.07.121.
  6. Willie James Jennings, Acts: A Theological Commentary on the Bible (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017), 100.

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