Only 93 women speak in the entirety of the Bible, and of those, only 49 have names. These women speak a total of 14,056 words in the entire Bible (NRSV) – a little over 1% of the total words in the entire book. Some of the women featured in the Bible don’t even speak in their own stories – so if we want to learn from them, we have to look a little bit closer.
In Acts 9, we find one of the story of Dorcas (Tabitha, in Hebrew), one of the only two women whose resurrection is recorded in the Bible. We don’t know much about Dorcas – only six verses – but we do know that she was constantly helping others. “[She] was always doing good and helping the poor,” Luke tells us (9:36 NIV). Unfortunately, we don’t get to see any stories of her helping the poor – instead, we enter the story at the apparent end of hers: she has become sick and died, and her friends and beneficiaries are mourning her death. The disciples summon Peter, who is nearby, to her apartment. When he got there, “all the widows stood around him, crying and showing him the robes and other clothing that Dorcas had made” (9:39 NIV). Peter sends them out of the room, prays, and says, “Tabitha, get up,” and she opens her eyes. It’s a miracle – the first recorded resurrection since Jesus’ ascension to heaven. Peter summons the believers – “especially the widows” – and joyfully presents their living friend to them.
In the small space within the book of Acts that Luke devotes to this story, he emphasizes two details. The first is the resurrection itself, a notable and joyous occasion both for its return of a beloved woman to her community and its evidence that the spirit of God was still with the believers, empowering them to perform miracles as Jesus had done. The second detail, however, is the one that intrigues me: the presence of the widows.
Much like Dorcas, the widows never speak in the text – but their presence cannot be ignored. There is an entire community here that we are only seeing the outline of – one in which Dorcas, a skilled seamstress, uses her time and skills to provide clothes for the poor. The presence of the widows at her deathbed suggests that she was especially focused on helping widows – whether young single mothers or elderly ladies. In the time of the early church, a woman without male support was incredibly vulnerable, without many legal rights and limited options for earning and income. While the entire church was devoted to helping the poor – especially widows and orphans – Dorcas was the one who made sure they had the clothes they needed to wear. I like to imagine her providing a young widow with something in a flattering style, or choosing the softest fabric for an old woman’s winter cloak. She may have made sure the women got all the necessary undergarments – a detail the men would overlook or misunderstand – or taken extra time to embroider a beautiful border on the hem of a tunic. We know the garments she made meant a lot to the people she helped: at her deathbed they eagerly showed them to Peter, as proof of her kindness and generosity.
While we never see Dorcas in action, the Bible does acknowledge the bond she formed with the women she cared for. Especially the widows, Luke notes. When Dorcas comes back to life, Peter knows that the women who she has cared for - who she has treated like her own sisters and mothers and daughters - should be the first to know. There’s an entire community of women weeping and then rejoicing that day, even though we don’t know a word of what they said.
Dorcas isn’t the only woman in the New Testament who contributes to the early church. There’s Lydia, a successful businesswoman and "seller of purple" (Acts 16:14) who converts to Christianity and welcomes the apostles into her home. There’s Priscilla, a tent-maker and missionary who Paul mentions several times and holds in high esteem, sometimes mentioning her before her husband. Dorcas, however, remains my favorite, for her silence – and the quiet witness of the community surrounding her.
Today, there are opportunities for outreach and ministry that are uniquely apparent or available to women. Shelters desperately need sanitary products such as pads and tampons, which are usually overlooked in favor of canned corn and cake mix. Women can earn the trust of women who have been molested, abused, or manipulated by men. In doing so, they can share the good news of the Man who, after his resurrection, appeared to women before anyone else, who listened to them and welcomed them and empowered them when others would cast them aside.
The stories of all these women like Dorcas play into a much bigger biblical story. Luke's book on the life of Jesus highlights the work of the Son of God, while his book Acts, in which Dorcas appears, highlights the work of Jesus through The Holy Spirit - who is the tangible presence of God for the early church after Jesus has ascended to heaven.
In the story of Dorcas, there is a clear and obvious instance of the Spirit's power - when Peter comes to the mourners and they see Dorcas raised from the dead. However, the power that raised her from the dead was clearly already working in and through her during her life.
In John 3:8, Jesus says "The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” (NIV) Jesus is saying that those who live by the Spirit take on the characteristics that the Spirit gives them. The Holy Spirit is invisible like the wind, but much like the wind you can feel and hear the effects of the Spirit working. Those who are born of the Spirit are like that as well. They are the unsung heroes working in the background, acknowledged by only a few, but heroes nonetheless.
In Ephesians 1, Paul tells us that the same power that raised Jesus from the dead is the power that now lives and works in believers (Ephesians 1:18-23). That power that raised Jesus from the dead is the same power that raised Dorcas from the dead, and is the same power that enabled her to live a selfless, quietly heroic life. It made her like the wind - unpredictably moving to the next mission, invisibly touching the world around it and bringing healing and refreshment.
The Bible is full of silent women, who moved and worked and ministered without waiting for approval or a platform, propping each other up and caring for each other as they spread the love of God. The church is still full of women, full of talents and spiritual gifts and powerful words to share with everyone around them, both men and women.
You can have that power too.
Read Ephesians 1:15-23. What does Paul say here about the power working in believers? How does it connect resurrection and the lives of Christians in the church?
Read John 3:1-21. From this conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, what does it mean to be "born of the Spirit?" What does it mean to be "born again?"
Acts 9:32-43 reports Peter performing some remarkable miracles. Obviously, this power did not come from Peter but from God. However, do you think it is strange that we don't often see miracles like this performed today? Why do you think that might be? Do you believe that these kinds of manifestations will ever return to the church?
As a follow up to the last question, do you think it is fundamentally different for Peter to miraculously heal people and for Dorcas to make clothes for homeless people, or are those both manifestations of the same power? What are the implications of this?
The miracles performed in Lydda and Joppa in Acts 9 are evidence that convinces many people to believe in Jesus. This is a common theme in Acts - people believe in the gospel because of evidence of it's power. What evidences are there at work today that could convince people of the truth of the gospel? What have you seen?
What makes someone a hero? Do they have to conquer nations, win a war, save someone's life? Or can smaller actions qualify someone to be considered a hero? Read John 13:1-17. What would Jesus say about this?