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.