Sure, when you are blessed to have a Mom who is from Belfast, it is almost impossible to be a literalist…so it t’is. Like people everywhere, people who’re from Belfast, have their own way of speaking the Queen’s English…so they do. An the way they talk’s enough ta make ya think twice before you’d ever make the mistake of takin the written word literally. Sure it twas m’ Belfast Mommy, who prepared me well to make a living searching for the more than literal meaning of a story…so it was. For if I was to take the words in the story of the resurrection of Tabitha literally, I can hear my Mom saying, “Ach away and give your head a shake, catch yourself on, you wee melter.”
Let me break that down for you. “Ach away.” Now you might guess that “ach away” means “go away”, or you might confuse “ach away” with the American “get otta here” and ye’d be close, but no cigar, for “ach away” means just the same as another Belfast phrase, “come here, wait’ll a tell ya. That’s right in Belfast, “come here wait’ll a tell ya” and “ach away” mean the same thing.
“Ach away and give your head a shake, catch yourself on you wee melter.” Well now, why don’t we give the second part of this a go, literally: “give your head a shake.” Go on. I mean it, “give your head a shake.” Well, all you who actually gave your head a shake, you might actually be a literalist because you see when my Belfast Mom, says, “give your head a shake” what she actually means is, well how shall I put this,
Canadian’s might use a very common Anglo-Saxon curse word in front of the word off, in this case, one of those words that would have prompted me Mom to send me for a bar of soap. I’ll just have to trust that you get my meaning, cause I’m not going to use the Canadian equivalent, not in church…and so. So, what about the next one, “catch yourself on”. Anybody know how to take that one literally? No you can’t actually catch yourself on, so even if you wanted to you can’t take that one literally… so ya can’t. Catch yourself on simply means, wise up…so it does.
Ok we’re almost there, “Ach away and give your head a shake, catch yourself on you wee melter.”Come ere, and blankety blank yourself, wise up, “you wee melter” any ideas? I’ll give you a hint “wee” in Belfast can mean anything at all, and nothing in particular. But “melter”, well you don’t wanna be called a “melter”. Melter simply means that you are annoying…so it does. So, when I tell you that words, especially words which people have bothered to put down on the page, believe me when I tell ya, words have a more-than-literal meaning… so they do.
Sadly, there are more than a few we melters who insist upon scundering me to no end…so the do. Scunder, scundering, one of my favourite Belfast ways of saying that to take the words of any story literally is just plain scundering…so it tis. That is to say depressing. Sure tis so depressing when people settle for the literal meaning of the words, so, ach away and give your heads a shake, catch yourselves on and don’t be wee melters, because I’m about to read you a Gospel story, in which we are about to discover, the more-than-literal meaning of the story of the Resurrection of Tabitha or is it Dorcas?
Our Gospel comes to us from the ninth chapter of Book of Acts, which scholars tell us was written by the same anonymous gospel-story-teller who wrote the book we know as Luke.
“Now in Joppa there was a disciple, a woman named Tabitha—“Dorcas,” in Greek—who never tired of doing kind things or giving to charity. About this time she grew ill and died. They washed her body and laid her out in an upstairs room. Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples sent two couriers to Peter with the urgent request, “Please come over to us without delay.” Peter set out with them as they asked. Upon his arrival, they took him upstairs to the room. All the townswomen who had been widowed stood beside him weeping, and showed him the various garments Dorcas had made when she was still with them. Peter first made every on go outside, then knelt down and prayed. Turning to the body, he said, “Tabitha, stand up.” She opened her eyes, then looked at Peter and sat up. He gave her his hand and helped her to her feet. The next thing he did was to call in those who were believers—including the widows—to show them that she was alive. This became known all over Joppa and, because of it, many came to believe in Jesus Christ. Peter remained awhile in Joppa, staying with Simon, a leather tanner.” (Acts 9:36-43)
An so, there you have it, the Gospel according to the Book of the Acts of the Apostles. The miraculous story of how the Apostle Peter raised a disciple named Tabitha from the dead. You all know that when someone is dead, that’s it, they are dead. Well in Belfast dead doesn’t mean what you think it means. If my Mommy were to say something is “dead on” she’d be telling me that “it’s not a problem.” And being dead isn’t a problem in this story because Tabitha is about to stand up. Ah, but give your head a shake because this story was written in Greek and the word for stand up, sit up, rise up, is the very same as the word we translate as “resurrection.”
And you can catch yourself on, if you’re saying to yourself, “there’s about as much chance of a person standing up after they’ve actually been dead as there is of little green men from outer space landing on Wayne Drive. Or, maybe you’re the generous type and so you say, “don’t be too hasty, it could happen if the person wasn’t really dead. I mean maybe Tabitha’s friends got it wrong and she just appeared to be dead.” Catch yourself on, the story says that Tabitha died, then her friends washed her body and laid her out in an upper room. Then since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples sent two couriers to Peter who was in Lydda and they asked Peter to head back to Lydda which was about 10 miles away.
That’s a 20-mile round trip on foot with a walking speed of about 3 miles per hour, it would take at least 7 hours. She was definitely dead the situation was anything but dead on. According to the story Peter sends everyone out of the room, knelt down and prayed and then said, “Tabitha, stand up.” And she did just that. The story of the raising of Tabitha is one of those stories which we wouldn’t believe for a second if it wasn’t in the Bible. I suspect that when it comes to stories from the Bible, most of us don’t really believe that they happened exactly the way the Bible says they happened. Or do we? Stories like the raising of Tabitha make many of us uncomfortable. Because it’s stories like this which make the bible so difficult to deal with.
According to New Testament scholar Marcus Borg: “In the last half century, more Christians have left the church because of the Bible than for any other single reason.” Biblical literalism which despite popular opinion is actually a modern and not an ancient approach to scripture, has boxed many 21st century minds into a proverbial corner from which the only escape is to reject the Bible as a source of wisdom. From the very beginning of Christianity, the Scriptures have been understood as a complex mix of historical, metaphorical, allegorical, and symbolic writings which reflect the relationship between the CREATOR and Creation. It is only in about the past 200 years or so that people begin insisting that the bible must be accepted as the literal factual historical truth.
The stories about Creation found in the book of Genesis are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to sinking the beliefs of the faithful. Unable to check their brains at the door, many Christians have simply refused to cross the threshold of the church and disengaged from even trying to relate to texts that appear locked in a mindset that is trapped in a bygone age. The predominance of Biblical literalism has left so many Christians desperately clinging to the Bible fearing that if one single portion of the text is determined not to be the literal factual truth then the whole house of cards will come tumbling down and their faith will be lost.
And so, the arguments about the truth of the Bible have come to overshadow the wisdom which is to be found in the sacred texts and in some stories positively bulges between the lines of the scared pages. Sadly, the preoccupation with the literal factual truth of scripture has become a distraction which has kept too many people from exploring the more-than-literal truth and the wonders of metaphor, allegory, and symbol have been lost to all but the brave few who dare to challenge the lopsided literal approach to truth. So, let’s just give our heads a shake, wise up and start from the beginning.
This story begins in Joppa, which today is known as the cosmopolitan city of Jaffa. Jaffa is a city on the coast of the Mediterranean and when the Acts of the Apostles was written at the turn of the first century, Joppa was every bit as cosmopolitan as Jaffa is today. A first century audience would have heard in the name Joppa a clue to alert them to the fact that the followers of Jesus were venturing beyond the predominately Jewish area of the Roman Empire. In Joppa, the followers of the way would encounter a very gentile society where questions about mixing with non-jews were similar to the questions Catholics and Protestants used to raise in Belfast.
Joppa was the city from which the prophet Jonah set out for Tarshish on his ill-fated journey to escape the will of the ALMIGHTY. And for this reason alone the name Joppa conjured up images of a city on the outer edge or the boundary of the Jewish faith. But I’ll return to the notion of boundaries in a moment.
Now, I’ve told you before that whenever you are dealing with an ancient text, names matter. Just as surely as the name Adam literally means Earth, or Abraham literally means father of nations, or Jesus which comes from Joshua literally means YAHWEH, names are important. YAHWEH which literally means I AM WHO I AM. Everything is in the name. And just in case you forget to pay attention to names, the writer of Acts spells it out for you in both Aramaic and in Greek when he introduces the woman named Tabitha which he tells us is Dorcas in Greek— so let me tell you that Dorcas literally means gazelle.
Gazelle a word that literally comes from an older Arabic word for “LOVE” is the name given to that splendid creature we sometimes call an antelope. Gazelles are very common in the Middle East especially the variety which has become known as the dorcas antelope, which literally means “the love, love.” But wait it gets even better. Because the writer of the book of Acts would have known just as well as his listeners that the mere mention of a dorcas antelope would have conjured up images of religious controversy.
Gazelles you see inhabited a strange sort of boundary when it came to Jewish dietary laws. A gazelle is four-footed cloven-hoofed animal which chews its cud. This puts the gazelle in a category known as “clean” which means that it could be eaten. But because the gazelle is not a domesticated animal, it could be hunted and eaten, but it could not be sacrificed in the temple. Wild animals could not be eaten in connection with any religious rite. The gazelle which inhabits the land on the boundaries of the cities and towns, living on the fringes of civilization was hunted for its meat, and although it was deemed clean and therefore it was permissible to eat a gazelle, a gazelle is also wild and so it needed to be kept well away from any religious ceremony, because a gazelle could not be consecrated.
Now, I realize that I’m running the risk of losing some of you with too much detail, so let me give you a clue here. The early followers of the Jesus were in a quandary as to how to deal with gentile converts. Could they sit down to a meal and eat with the uncircumcised and risk ritual impurity? Could they let the uncircumcised come to the table? In addition to bringing up issues of ritual purity the gazelle would have also provoked images of something, or should I say someone far more crucial to the Jewish listener. I told you before that the word gazelle literally means LOVE.
So, who else was called LOVE? GOD is LOVE right? Well in Jewish art the gazelle is used as a symbol for YAHWEH. But even more interesting than that, the gazelle was also used to illustrate the life-giving aspect of YAHWEH. In a culture where the majority could not read, pictures were used to represent the details of the faith and the life-giving aspect of YAHWEH which is LOVE were depicted by images of the gazelle. Now there’s so much more that I could tell you about the symbol of the Gazelle, but I simply don’t have time and yees’d be tell me to catch me-self on, or worse to give my head a shake.
Suffice it to say that the writer of Acts was determined that his listeners did not fail to see that, and I quote, that “Tabitha—that is Dorcas in Greek” is named for YAWHEH who also inhabits the boundaries, the margins of the Jewish faith. By giving the name in both Aramaic and in Greek the author practically hits us over the head with the fact that this woman symbolizes something far greater than we can even begin to imagine, for she bears the name of YAHWEH who is LOVE.
So, if you need to limit her to being an actual living breathing human being who, if you traveled back in time you could take a picture of her and say “here she is,” then you are going to limit yourself to the literal truth, and you will fail to see the more-than-literal truth that this story is trying to tell us and that my friends is scundering. The author has set his listeners up for a story which expresses more than words can tell. Need I remind you that the literal meaning of metaphor is that which is “beyond words”. Meta means beyond and phor means word, metaphor means to carry beyond the words.
So listen up, you are about to hear a metaphor about Joppa a town on the boundaries of Judaism where Jews and Gentiles mix and the lead character in the story is Tabitha—Dorcas in Greek who is by her very name both Aramaic and Greek the product of the mixing of races and religions, whose very name represents a creature which inhabits the fringes of civilization, and is by nature both clean and unclean, acceptable and yet not acceptable, and whose very name symbolizes YAHWEH who is LOVE.
Clearly this story is so much more-than-literal. So let me give you one more fact to throw into the mix. The antelope has horns and in the Middle East the Dorcas Antelope uses its horns to dig for water. Water is the stuff of life. Indeed, the early followers of Jesus referred to Jesus himself as the Living Water.
Tabitha—Dorcas in Greek is described as a disciple who never tired of doing kind things or giving to charity. She represents the gentile convert to faith in the Jesus’ Way of being, who at the time inhabited the fringes of the early communities of Followers of the Way. At the very time when Jesus’ Jewish followers were debating the inclusion of the gentiles, Peter is called upon to raise this gentile convert from the dead. To demonstrate her value to the community the townswomen showed Peter (whose name literally means rock, indicating that he is the rock who will serve as the foundation of the community). The women, show Peter, the fruits of Tabitha’s faith. In the various garments which she wove together, Peter sees all the evidence he needs, to weave gentiles and Jews, women and me, slaves and free together.
And so, he tells everyone to go outside, then Peter kneels down and prays. Turning to the body, Peter said, “Tabitha, stand up.” And here the first hearers of this story would have heard the echo of an earlier story in which Jesus uttered the words, “Tilitha cum”. Which actually means “little girl stand up.” And just in case you missed it, the literal meaning of the word which gets translated into English as resurrection also quite literally means “stand up”.
And low and behold Tabitha opens her eyes. Opening her eyes, they would have been catching themselves back in the day, because they all knew that gazelles with eyes open…mean life! DIVINE life! With her eyes open, our text says Tabitha “sat up” but in the Greek the word is the same for as the word for “stand up” or resurrect. DIVINE life is restored to a gentile convert. This story is not about the resurrection of an individual. It is about much more than that. It is about the gift of DIVINE life being extended beyond the boundaries of Jewish religious life.
And just in case you still don’t get it, the writer of Acts tells you in the last line of today’s lesson that, “Peter remained awhile in Joppa, staying with Simon, a leather tanner.” Now in case you missed it, Simon was Peter’s name before Jesus gave him the name Peter. And if you still don’t get it, this Simon is described as a leather tanner. Now every self-respecting Jew would have known that contact with a leather tanner makes you ritually impure because tanning leather requires contact with corpses which is a definite no no if you’re an observant Jew.
And so, the writer of Acts sets up his listeners for the next story in Acts, which describes Peter’s encounter with Cornelius and Peter’s dilemma about what the followers of Jesus can and cannot eat, and who they can and cannot eat with. And just in case you’ve forgotten Peter’s vision, suffice it to say that LOVE wins out in the end. LOVE, antelope, gazelle, Tabitha, Dorcas, YAHWEH are all intimately and DIVINELY intertwined to reveal the very nature of our CREATOR who breaks all our boundaries so that we can dwell in LOVE with all our neighbours.
That dear friends is the more-than-literal truth about the raising of Tabitha. As for me, I don’t know if this story actually happened this way, but I do know that this story is absolutely true! God is LOVE and LOVE traverses and triumphs over boundaries. So, catch yourself on, wise up, you wee loves and be the LOVE your mothers raised you up to be.
I am indebted to Rick Strelan’s excellent essay “Tabitha: The GAZELL of Joppa” published in 2019 in the Biblical Theology Bulletin: Journal of Bible and Culture – follow this link for more details: here
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