Disabilities in the Bible by Meghan Henning

Is there a single attitude toward disability in the Bible?

Although there is no term for disability among the cultures that produced the biblical texts, there were standards of bodily normativity, standards which when combined with the realities of ancient life, meant that a majority of ancient persons had bodies that would be classified as different or deviating from the normative body in some way.

In the Hebrew Bible we learn that people with particular types of bodies, namely, the “blind” and the “lame,” could not enter the temple (2Sam 5:8). In addition to blindness and mobility impairments precluding entry into the temple, reproductive incapacity or “barrenness” could also preclude a person from entering the sanctuary space (Deut 23:1; Gen 25:21-26; Judg 13:2-25; 2Kgs 4:8-37). In these passages persons with particular kinds of bodies that were viewed as nonnormative were excluded religiously and socially.

How do the biblical ideas about disability relate to those of the broader culture in antiquity?

Throughout the Bible bodily differences like blindness and deafness are used as metaphors for ignorance or lack of comprehension, reflecting ancient cultural attitudes towards disabilities. For instance, Isa 56:10 refers to Israel’s sentinels as “blind” and elaborates that they are “without knowledge.” And in the discourse against the Pharisees in Matt 23, Jesus refers to his opponents as “blind guides” and “blind fools.” For the biblical authors who lived in a culture that saw disabilities as deficiencies (and not simply as differences), the metaphorical use of disabilities was a way to invoke incapacity of some kind. In our contemporary world, these metaphorical references to disability are all too easily used to support the ableism that still exists today, leading us to think of blindness and deafness as bodily states that are less than other bodies.

The reason that these metaphors worked in their ancient context and still play well in the contemporary world is because of the negative value that is placed upon bodies that are in some way different from what is considered the norm. In the extreme this attitude equates disabled bodies with moral failure. In John’s Gospel, for instance, there is a clear link made between disability and sin. In John 5:14, Jesus tells the paralyzed man who has just been healed, “Do not sin anymore so that nothing worse happens to you.” And in John 9:2, the disciples upon meeting a man who was born blind ask Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents?” In both of these passages the underlying assumption is that individual sin causes disability. In this context Jesus’s healings and his response to the question subtly undermine the idea that disabilities are caused by sin, even while the text of John’s Gospel reinforces that cultural norm.

There are also texts within the Bible that offer a critique of the prevailing cultural ideas about disability. In 2 Samuel, Mephibosheth, Saul’s grandson who was “crippled in his feet” (2Sam 4:2-4) is a recurring character (2Sam 9:1-10; 2Sam 16; 2Sam 19; 2Sam 21:1-9). Mephibosheth’s disability does not simply exclude him from kingship but invites reflection on the relationship between physical disability and royal ideology in ancient Israel. The tension between David, who does become king, and Mephibosheth’s disability, which disqualifies him from the monarchy, invites readers to think critically about the possibilities that emerge after the collapse of the monarchy. Similarly, while Mark 5:25-34 draws upon some of the same negative attitudes toward persons with disabilities, it does so in a way that invites the audience to imagine social change for people like the woman with the flow of blood. Ultimately the story ends by imagining God’s kingdom as a space of radical social inclusion, one in which people with different bodies have agency over their own body. This kind of inclusion and agency would have been counter to ancient standards of bodily normativity. Likewise, Paul’s description of the “thorn” (2Cor 12:7-10) reverses the commonly held medical idea that weak bodies are more susceptible to invasion, positioning his own disability as a source of strength.

Meghan Henning, "Disabilities in the Bible", n.p. [cited 18 Oct 2019]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.org/en/people/related-articles/disabilities-in-the-bible

Contributors

Meghan Henning

Meghan Henning
Assistant Professor, University of Dayton

Meghan Henning is the Assistant Professor of Christian Origins at the University of Dayton. She is the author of Educating Early Christians through the Rhetoric of Hell: ‘Weeping and Gnashing of Teeth’ as Paideia in Matthew and the Early Church (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 

The historical period from the beginning of Western civilization to the start of the Middle Ages.

A gospel is an account that describes the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."

A system of rule with a monarch as its head; or the hereditary system passed from one monarch to another.

2Sam 5:8

8David had said on that day, “Whoever would strike down the Jebusites, let him get up the water shaft to attack the lame and the blind, those whom David hates.” ... View more

Deut 23:1

Those Excluded from the Assembly
1No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.

Gen 25:21-26

21Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife, because she was barren; and the Lord granted his prayer, and his wife Rebekah conceived.22The children struggled togeth ... View more

Judg 13:2-25

2There was a certain man of Zorah, of the tribe of the Danites, whose name was Manoah. His wife was barren, having borne no children.3And the angel of the Lord ... View more

2Kgs 4:8-37

Elisha Raises the Shunammite's Son
8One day Elisha was passing through Shunem, where a wealthy woman lived, who urged him to have a meal. So whenever he passed ... View more

Isa 56:10

10Israel's sentinels are blind,
they are all without knowledge;
they are all silent dogs
that cannot bark;
dreaming, lying down,
loving to slumber.

Matt 23

Jesus Denounces Scribes and Pharisees
1Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples,2“The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat;3therefore, do what ... View more

John 5:14

14Later Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, “See, you have been made well! Do not sin any more, so that nothing worse happens to you.”

John 9:2

2His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

2Sam 4:2-4

2Saul's son had two captains of raiding bands; the name of the one was Baanah, and the name of the other Rechab. They were sons of Rimmon a Benjaminite from Bee ... View more

2Sam 9:1-10

David's Kindness to Mephibosheth
1David asked, “Is there still anyone left of the house of Saul to whom I may show kindness for Jonathan's sake?”2Now there was ... View more

2Sam 16

David's Adversaries
1When David had passed a little beyond the summit, Ziba the servant of Mephibosheth met him, with a couple of donkeys saddled, carrying two ... View more

2Sam 19

1It was told Joab, “The king is weeping and mourning for Absalom.”2So the victory that day was turned into mourning for all the troops; for the troops heard tha ... View more

2Sam 21:1-9

David Avenges the Gibeonites
1Now there was a famine in the days of David for three years, year after year; and David inquired of the Lord. The Lord said, “Ther ... View more

Mark 5:25-34

25Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years.26She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; a ... View more

2Cor 12:7-10

7even considering the exceptional character of the revelations. Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of S ... View more

 NEH Logo
Bible Odyssey has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor
Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this website, do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.