Monday, November 8, 2010

Disabilities and Biblical Studies

We live in a society that has become more informed about and compassionate towards those with disabilities. It is becoming more common for stories about people who experience physical and mental challenges to become a more visible part of our society. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 enshrined in law what needed to become a national attitude towards those who are disabled.

One place where this new awareness is beginning to take root is the field of biblical studies. More and more scholars are recognizing that the way disabled people are portrayed in the Bible does not always reflect our modern way of thinking. In the west at least, we no longer exile those with skin diseases (Lev 13:45-46) and we allow those who are disabled to enter and serve in our places of worship (Lev 21:16-23),

To be sure, the Bible does not always speak of disabilities in a disagreeable manner. Jacob, after all, has a limp from God (Gen 32:31) and Mephibosheth is no longer able to walk after being dropped as a child (2 Sam 4:4). Indeed, the Bible has sharp words for those who abuse the disabled (Lev 19:14). But the witness of the Bible is uneven on this topic. While we are encouraged not to abuse these people, we are also told that they are to be excluded from certain activities and even from acts of worship.

Most of what I have quoted, of course, comes from the Hebrew Bible. But the New Testament provides numerous examples. In Mark, for instance, Jesus heals a man with a withered hand in the synagogue (3:1-6) which seems to indicate that while the disabled may not have been allowed to worship in the temple they could participate in synagogue.

But there is dark side even in the New Testament. In John 9:2 we read that the disciples connect a congenital impairment, blind at birth, with sin (John 9:2). And in Mark 9:14-29 a boy with the symptoms of epilepsy is said to have a demon. The author of Matthew seems to have recognized that what afflicted the young boy was more neurological than spiritual as reflected in the way he adjusts Mark's version of the story by stripping away most of the language of demons and instead introducing the boy as suffering from some type of mental illness (Matt 17:15).

All of this should lead us to reconsider the way that we read the Bible in light of our modern understanding of the challenges and disabilities that hinder our fellow human beings. In a recent blog post Paul Franklyn, associate publisher for the CEB, commented on how the translators grappled with translating terms such as "cripple" and "lame" for an audience that may not find these terms an acceptable way to talk about others. Also this week, Jeremy Schipper, in the SBL Forum, talks about disabilities in the Hebrew Bible and points out that often the statements about and instructions concerning various disabilities do not approach the topic as a medical issue, but a religious one. He cautions us that when the Bible talks about a disability that it may not be talking about disabled people, but some other topic.

So where does this leave us? With yet another thing to be aware of when reading the Bible. Just as we have reevaluated the way the Bible talks about and portrays women, the foreigner and slaves, we need also to beware that some passages in the Bible prove to be more difficult to preach than others, especially to a group of disabled. Just as it is hard for us to identify with some of the time and culturally bound passages of the Bible, it can be difficult for some to hear about those in the Bible who faced challenges similar to their own and were excluded because of them. This means that when preaching on passages like Leviticus 19, 21 or even John 9 we need to exercise caution so that we do not allow statements in the text to marginalize those in the audience who might be blind, handicapped, or suffering from mental illness. It means that biblical studies is hard work.


  1. As a parent of 3 with disabilities, it has been my experience that churches and bible colleges are some of the biggest violators of disabled rights. They refuse to consider those protected by section 504 of the ADA, especially the learning disabled or dyslexic in any of the school activities, assuming everyone has the same abilities everything is based on the general population. Church leaders are the least trained and understanding of those with disabilities in their midst. It only adds to the negative view many have of church activities today. Colorado

  2. I sent my disabled son to a bible college because it was his desire. Since his disability is not visible,staff treated him unfairly. I feared the ridicule and lack of sensitivity would push him into depression after hearing stories of being singled out by uneducated or trained staff. These types of private schools don't want any critique since they are not public schools. The sad truth is they do violate ADA and no one holds them accountable.