Disability Theory in the Bible
“More important, the Old Testament has a quasi-independent role within the Christian Bible, contributing theological dimensions that supplement, enrich, and at points even qualify the witness of the New Testament. The church considers both testaments to be necessary for a full understanding of God’s self-disclosure and human response to the divine initiative” (Metzger,Coogan, 83). There are multiple discourses concerning the studies of both the Old and New Testament theology and its relation to each other: systems of theology that are seemingly contradictory. In the Old Testament, there is the presumption that God is an angry God who allowed and commanded genocides and animal sacrifices: “Then Israel made a vow to the Lord and said, “If you will indeed give this people into our hands, then we will utterly destroy their towns.” The Lord listened to the voice of Israel, and handed over the Canaanites; and they utterly destroyed them and their towns; so the place was called Hormah” (Numbers 21:2–3). However, in the New Testament, Jesus taught wholly differently: “But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you” (Luke 6:27) The disability theory demonstrated by the Word also contains these immersive contradictions: the notion that the disabled were considered to be a sin, where the only life offered to the disabled were that of beggars and prostitutes, even in Israelite society. Conversely, the Bible must be looked at as an entire story of God and His people, eventually culminating in the Messiah fulfilling the Law presented in the Old Testament, and the manifestation of God’s grace toward his sinful people. Disability is not excluded in this fulfillment either, but is actually revealed to be the graces of God in both the Old and New Testament. Ultimately being staged at the centerfold of the story’s culmination with a uniquely holy purpose to mightily exhibit the power and glory of God. The spectacle that arises around the disabled so severely is with greater purpose: a greater honor bestowed upon the disabled.
The most imperative distinction between the Old and New Testament is the focus of the person Jesus Christ, all while completely interconnected. The Old Testament was an essential display of God’s wrath on sin through the story of His people. The totality of this story rested upon the confines of God’s law and the covenant as displayed by the Ten Commandments through Moses, and the entirety of Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. “You have declared this day that the Lord is your God and that you will walk in his ways, that you will keep his decrees, commands, and laws, and that you will obey him. He has declared that he will set you in praise, fame and honor high above all the nations he has made….” (Deuteronomy 26:17&19) However, throughout this history, the Israelites continued to disobey, which led to suffering and anguish, usually committed by enemy nations. God punished those that sinned, disobeyed, and disbelieved: an attribute of God’s justice that plagued much of the ancient nation’s perception of disability. “But the Israelites acted unfaithfully in regard to the devoted things….So the Lord’s anger burned against Israel” (Joshua 7:1).
Disability was viewed to be a divine punishment and curse for disobeying God. “However, if you do not obey the Lord your God and do not carefully follow all his commands and decrees I am giving you today…The Lord will afflict you with madness, blindness and confusion of mind. At midday you will grope about like a blind man in the dark” (Deuteronomy 28:1&28–29). With clear law and intention, God had displayed this suffering to be inflicted by God himself. And so easily a stigma encircled around all disabled to be unfaithful sinners, as demonstrated through multiple cases in the Old Testament. “But after Uzziah became powerful, his pride led to his downfall. He was unfaithful to the Lord his God, and entered the temple of the Lord to burn incense on the altar of incense….While he was raging at the priests in their presence before the incense altar in the Lord’s temple, leprosy broke out on his forehead.” (2 Chronicles 26:16&19) In the story of Samson, immediately after he disobeyed God and told Delilah of the strength in his hair, “Then the Philistines seized him, gouged out his eyes and took him down to Gaza.” (Judges 16:21) The magnitude of disability and its relation to sin becomes so largely associated with wickedness that the unlawful Israel and unbelievers become metaphorically compared to disability: “Hear, you deaf; look, you blind, and see! Who is blind but my servant, and deaf like the messenger I send?…your ears are open, but you hear nothing.” (Isaiah 42:18–20) The image is painted that willing sin has deafened the ears: “Lead out those who have eyes but are blind, who have ear but are deaf.” (Isaiah 43:8) Disability and disobedience becomes so completely interconnected, that the notion of disability as sin itself, envelops much of the ancient nations and very well much into the beliefs of people during Jesus’s life: a stigma that Jesus now comes to radically rework by ultimately fulfilling the covenant.
Disability itself accrues to be a blemish and imperfectness that cannot be exposed in the presence of God. “For the generations to come none of your descendants who has a defect may come near to offer the food of his God. No man who has any defect may come near: no man who is blind or lame, disfigured or deformed; no man with crippled foot or hand, or who is hunchbacked or dwarfed, or who has any eye defect, or who has festering or running sores or damaged testicles.” (Leviticus 21:16–20) “Do not offer to the Lord the blind, the injured or the maimed, or anything with warts or festering or running sores. Do not place any of these on the altar as an offering made to the Lord by fire.” (Leviticus 22:22) So specific were the instructions, indicating the almost incompleteness and unclean disability was considered to be by God. This, which evidently influenced the belief of the people surrounding the disabled and the disability itself caused distancing and a true spectacle of God’s divine punishment in the individual. Though harsh in contemporary language and ideal, God had to display his perfectness in disallowing the disabled, along with anybody whom the Lord did not make holy. “I am the Lord, who makes them holy.” (Leviticus 21:23) In his holy perfectness, through his specific instructions concerning the sacrifices, there is foreshadow to how perfect and unblemished the decisive sacrifice must be. The continuing indication, throughout the Old Testament, was that no one was unflawed: the reason for the sacrifices. But still God continued to love these people, even the disabled, vindicating them with protection and future promise. “Do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block in front of the blind, but fear your God. I am the Lord.” (Leviticus 19:14) “Cursed is the man who leads the blind astray on the road.” (Deuteronomy 28:15)
The impervious rhetoric that disability is a sin vindictively raged until Jesus Christ came to profoundly eradicate and overturn the enforced tradition of ostracizing the disabled and those considered to be ‘sinful’. He came to wholly upset the Jewish convention of what and who was considered to sinful: everyone was embellished with sin without default. By relegating himself to the disabled and ‘lowered’ people, he spent considerable time in disability ministry. “As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life. As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me.” (John 9:1–4) As shown by the disciple’s questioning, the notion of direct connection between sin and disability loomed principally. However, Jesus came to upset the pride that curdled the Jews and their leaders, forcing recognition that they actually were the most sinful. ““Go,” he told him, “wash in the Pool of Siloam”. So the man went and washed, and came home seeing.” (John 9:7) Jesus was confronted with the dominant narrative at the time, and in confrontation, he disembodied it. By implying no direct correlation between this man’s sin and defect, he decreed that this was not a result of retribution, but instead an opportunity to do the work of God, as well as displaying the sovereignty of God. It was instead a direct manifestation of God’s power in this man’s life; this was the purpose of this man’s blindness.
Disability, as a presupposed plight of suffering and weakness, is established to be a state where God may more thoroughly and magnificently demonstrate his goodness and power. In the spectacle that disability continues to preside awe and confusion, becomes an ultimate paradigm where God’s goodness and glory shine brighter. “At that very time Jesus cured many who had diseases, sicknesses and evil spirits, and gave sight to many who were blind. So he replied to the messengers, “Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.”” (Luke 7:21–23) Through the platform of the disabled, Jesus’s ministry was abled and magnified. Whether it was by the very notion of the spectacle of his healing or the faith of those healed, Jesus’s display of who sent him was powerful.
He came to embrace and put to center the very awareness of what his ministry was: the disabled and the presumed more ‘sinful’. Through this platform, he was able to minister to the disabled themselves, but also to the mass crowds. “Great crowds came to him, bringing the lame, the blind, the crippled, the mute and many others, and laid them at his feet; and he healed them. The people were amazed when they saw the mute speaking, the crippled made well, the lame walking and the blind seeing. And they praised the God of Israel.” (Matthew 15:30–31) It is this specific and great purpose that the disabled hold. But also, through the palpable suffering wrought upon these people, Jesus was able to preach the humbleness that was most glorified and upheld in the kingdom of God.
The notion of weakness, only supplemented by grace, was the true ministry that Jesus came to preach. By himself coming to earth in weakness, opposed to grand reign that the Jews believed the coming Messiah would come in, he magnified the grace of God. The disabled become the direct manifestation of this ministry of grace. “Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?” (Matthew 26:53–54) To unequivocally sermonize the glory of God’s strength through weakness, Jesus himself came down in utter meekness: to decimate the narrative of arrogance and pride. “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death — even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:6–8) In demolishing human pride, Jesus revealed that He, as God, was the only way into everlasting glory. “But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weakness, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.” (2 Corinthians 12:9) Through the contempt of suffering and weakness, Jesus’s power is demonstrated and massively fulfilled. “I tell you, among those born of women there is no greater than John; yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” (Luke 7:28) Jesus has prevalently preached that those considered to be weak, holds greater glory and strength in the kingdom of God. Disability comes as a truer form of this weakness.
Even before Jesus, God used the spectacled and weakened state of the disabled to exact his faithfulness to his people. “The king asked, “Is there no one still left of the house of Saul to whom I can show God’s kindness?”…”Don’t be afraid,” David said to him, “for I will surely show you kindness for the sake of your father Jonathon….Mephibosheth bowed down and said, “What is your servant, that you should notice a dead dog like me?”…And Mephibosheth lived in Jerusalem, because he always ate at the king’s table and he was crippled in both feet.” (2 Samuel 9:3&7–8&13) In his crippled stature, Mephibosheth deemed himself completely unworthy, but solely through the sake of his father, King David was able to exhibit God’s kindness. A kingdom of Israel, Samaria, was stranded in famine because Ben-Hadad king of Aram laid siege to the city: a feminine so intense that some people began to consent to the idea of cannibalism. However, “there were four men with leprosy at the entrance of the city gate. They said to each other, “Why stay here until we die? If we say, “We’ll go into the city — the famine is there, and we will die. And if we stay here, we will die. So let’s go over to the camp of the Arameans and surrender. If they spare us, we live; if they kill us, then we die.” They went into the camp, but found it deserted. The Lord causes the Arameans “to hear the sound of chariots and horses and a great army so that they said to one another, “Look the king of Israel has hired the Hittite and Egyptian kings to attack us!” So they got up and fled in the dusk and abandoned their tents and their horses and donkeys. They left the camp as it was and ran for their lives. The men who had leprosy reached the edge of the camp and entered one of the tents. They ate and drank, and carried away silver, gold, and clothes….”We’re not doing right. This is a day of good news and we are keeping it to ourselves.”” (2 Kings 7:3–9) They then reported this to the royal palace, which then completely ended the famine in Samaria, resulting in a overflow of food. God used these four lepers, and their station in life of ostracized disability in the outer gate, to again demonstrate His power.
Through both the Old and New Testament, God has continually used the disabled and the spectacle of the disabled to announce and exude His glory. The disabled, as a true and apparent weakness becomes an utter manifestation of God’s power, glory, and grace to be used in the ministry of His people: the spectacle is with reason. Disability, in its totality of being, has become grace incarnated, with a specific and divine purpose to reveal God further. In this evident weakness, there is ultimate strength: a deconstruction of linear human logic for the sake of Christ. God becomes the sole way to redemption and glory of God, self and the entirety of all, as exemplified by the disabled.
“I thank God for my handicaps for, through them, I have found myself, my work, and my God.” — Helen Keller
“This paralysis is my greatest mercy.” –Joni Eareckson Tada
Metzger, Bruce M., and Michael David. Coogan. The Oxford Companion to the Bible. New York: Oxford UP, 1993. Print.
Holy Bible, New International Version. Colorado Springs: International Bible Society, 1984. Print.
Bayes, Ros. “A Biblical View of Disability.” Bethinking.org. N.p., 17 Feb. 2015. Web. 30 Apr. 2016. http://www.bethinking.org/human-life/a-biblical-view-of-disability
Deuel, David. “God’s Story of Disability: The Unfolding Plan from Genesis to Revelation.” Christian Institute on Disability 2.2 (2013): n. pag. Joni and Friends. Web. 30 Apr. 2016. <http://www.joniandfriends.org/media/uploads/PDFs/jcid_gods_story_of_disability-the_unfolding_plan_from_genesis_to_revelation.pdf>.