The Bible, Disability, and the Church. A New Vision of the People of God
Grand Rapids, MI – Cambridge (Eerdmans), 2011
174 p., paperback, $20.00
With this book, the author, J. Rodman Williams Professor of Theology at Regent University in Virginia Beach, is trying to reinterpret significant parts of the Bible from a disability perspective. His study is embedded in a larger approach of alternative bible interpretations rooted in the liberation theologies of the 1980s that sought to read biblical texts from the perspective of marginalized people. However, it is not only this newer twist to an alternative approach which has been growing during the last decade, but the author’s personal experience outlined in the first paragraph that set the tone for this study into the relationship between the church and its institutions and disability and the people affected by it.
Due to the personal nature of Y.’s study, it is addressed to a larger audience, and does not just remain in an academic realm. Therefore, it is written in an easy to read style and refrains from overusing theological language, unless necessary. The book is divided into four parts: Disability and exclusion in the Old Testament (17-48), Disability in the New Testament and the early Christian Church (49-81), a Pauline “Theology of Weakness” (82-117), and an eschatological look into a better, more inclusive future (118-144). After each chapter, Y. provides the reader with a set of questions for use in a classroom or for continued individual study.
All chapters are preceded by a largely personalized introduction (1-16), in which Y. explains his reason and motivation for this project. Aside from the development of this new approach to a Theology of Disability, this introductory chapter is probably the most impressive of the entire book. This introduction is what sets this book apart from a regular theological discourse on disability in the Bible because of its personal nature. Most academic literature is conceived to be objective and free from subjective experience. However, and anyone who has a friend or relative with a disability can attest to this, the situation of persons with disabilities in today’s society at large and in the church in particular cannot leave one just neutral to it. So also is this book, which resulted from an ongoing lack of integration of people with disabilities in general and Y.’s brother in particular into the church (regardless of denomination) and its supposedly “biblical” justifications.
In his first chapter (17-48), Y. discusses disability in the Hebrew Bible, which is represented by the usual suspects in the Levitical Holiness Code (Lev 21) and the story of Mephiboshet (2 Sam). He then turns his attention to Ps 44 to draw parallels between disability and Israel’s suffering. The second and third chapters are devoted to the New Testament, the tradition of Luke (49-81) and Pauline literature (82-117) in particular. In the last chapter, Y. is elaborating on an eschatological outlook regarding people with disabilities and their status within the church (118-144). This study closes with a brief epilogue (145-147) and an appendix on disabilities in Qumran (148).
The most interesting part of each chapter is the re-reading of the biblical passage in question from a disability perspective, which in many cases sheds a fresh light on a theme that has otherwise been discussed several times in the traditional historico-critical method. My review will mainly focus on those re-interpreted passages.
Y.’s first re-interpreted passages are the texts in the Hebrew Bible surrounding Jacob’s limp (Gen 32:24-32), the story of Mephiboshet/Meribaal (2 Sam), and Job’s suffering.
Jacob’s perceived injury becomes a strength in Y.’s interpretation: not only did Joseph wrestle God with his injury, God was unable to prevail against him (Gen 32:25) and Joseph was even able to get a blessing out of his opponent as a result of this ‘tie’ (31), thus turning a traditional negative reading of weakness into a positive one of perseverance.
The story about Mephibosheth/Meribaal in 2 Samuel is a very complex one and, as Y. correctly notes, not as easy to read as the story about a man with a physical disability regaining David’s trust and finally obtaining his inheritance despite his disability and not quite the ‘charity case’ as many traditional interpreters would have read it (32f.). Based on Jeremy Schipper’s work in Disability Studies and the Hebrew Bible. Figuring Mephibosheth in the David Story (New York: T&T Clark, 2006), Y. asserts that in this story, disability reflects “a complicated part of Israel’s self-understanding” (34). While I agree with Y.s conclusion from a disability reading perspective, it should be noted that one part of the complexity of this story is that there are two personae woven into one literary personality. In my recent publication, I tried to pick those two apart: Meribaal, Jonathan’s son and with a foot injury and Mephibosheth, Saul’s son and an alleged traitor.
The Job passage in question (Job 7:12-16), as well as the general outlook of this book, is traditionally interpreted as a theodicy, as a way to explain pain and suffering in the world, and that God is mysteriously behind everything, good or bad. Therefore is may be better to just accept your individual fate, even if you don’t ‘fit in’. However, according to Y., this “ableist” interpretation is based on the presumption of a perfect, unblemished body as an ideal (as postulated also in the Levitical Code). Referring to F. Rachel Magdalene’s examination of Ancient Near Eastern legal texts (On the Scales of Righteousness: Neo-Babylonian Trial Law: Brown Judaic Studies 348, Providence, RI, 2007), Y. sees parallels in Job with Ancient Near Eastern trial dialogues (38), during which the deity makes allusions to the so-called “monsters” Behemoth (Job 40:15-24) and Leviathan (Job 41:1-34). But instead of the traditional identification of disabled people with these ‘monsters’, Y. reminds us with Rebecca Raphael (Biblical Corpora: Representations of Disability in Hebrew Biblical Literature, Library of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies 445, New York – London: T&T Clark, 2008) that these presumed monsters are actually considered the pinnacle of God’s creation (40). Just like this passage, Y. believes that a theology of disability needs to look beyond the written word of the Hebrew Bible to arrive at properly situating the stories about disabled people and in doing so include them the Christological outlook of what is to come in the New Testament.
Y.s treatment of New Testament passages spans the next two chapters and deals with texts in two gospels and a proposed Pauline theology of disability.
In John 9, Y. focuses on a list of opposites (55) that, by a normate, ‘ableist’ reading of this gospel, would imply an interdependency of disability and sin, which only Jesus’ salvation would be able to overcome. However, from a disability perspective, when the disability is taken out of the equation, what is left of the story is a narrative about following Jesus, regardless whether the person is physically blind or not. (57)
The same is valid for the story of Jesus’ healing of the paralyzed man in the synoptic Gospels (Mt 9:2-8; Mk 2:1-12; Lk 5:17-26). In a traditional reading, Jesus finally breaks the cycle of illness and sin by simply forgiving the man’s sins and consequentially healing his paralysis. A disability theology, on the other hand, insists that forgiveness of sins and healing are not two consequential, but separate acts with separate addressees, the faithful disabled man and the disbelieving Pharisees in attendance. (61)
What follows is a paragraph about a disability theology based on Y.s Pentecost denomination, which we will not further discuss here and finally, one chapter about a suggested Pauline theology of disability, which Y. uses to develop a new ecclesiology for disabled people.
This disability ecclesiology is at the core of Y.s study. Starting with the presumption that Paul may have been disabled himself (84), as he describes himself as nearsighted (Gal 6:11), Y. goes on to highlight Paul’s multiple statements about the “weak” being the “strong”, i.e. 1 Cor 12:21-26. From this alleged Pauline theology of weakness it is, according to Y., only a short stone throw to another Pauline metaphor: In 1 Cor 1:28f., Paul postulates that God has chosen the weak over the strong, the foolish over the wise and Y. identifies the foolish here with intellectually disabled people, such as people affected by Down Syndrome (which at this point closes Y.’s circle from his introduction) (96). Furthermore, Y. states, and it is important to also keep the Pentecost belief in glossolaly in mind here: From an intellectual disability perspective, then, the power of the gospel is manifest not in eloquent rhetoric or sophisticated argumentation but in the babble of the foolish. Literally, it might be said that the power of the gospel was mediated what to normate ears is the strange and unintelligible gibberish of people with intellectual disabilities (104). In short, Y. believes that God chose to manifest himself through the “weak and foolish”, such as the cross and disabled people, rather than through “wise and strong” ones.
While this chapter about Pauline theology is definitely an important part of this book, it also raises a question on a historical level. It appears that Paul’s theology of weakness is based on his conversion experience on the road to Damascus, where Paul was apparently blinded, consequently remained near-sighted, and developed a certain sympathy for the disadvantaged. While this scenario is not impossible in light of his conversion to Christianity and a presumably more human regard for life, one has to doubt that the former Saulus, Roman citizen, prosecutor, and hunter of Christians, whose ideology was likely deeply rooted in Roman world views that included a certain disregard for human life in general and weakness in particular, would over night seek out just the opposite of what he has stood for so long. Of course, it is in the nature of a conversion that people do the exact opposite of what they have believed in, however, it is also very difficult to expunge old habits from your new behavior.
To close up this investigation, Y. addresses the eschatological question concerning people with disabilities and the common attitude that only in being united with God all health issues will finally be equalized and there will be no more hardships in the afterlife. Y. counters that if God chooses to manifest himself through weakness and blemishes, today’s churches need to play a bigger role in including those marginalized groups into the church body, not just as object of charity, but as fully functioning members of church life.
Y. finishes his study with an annex on disabled people in Qumran that refers to Johanna Dorman’s dissertation. It is not exactly clear why Y. inserts this reference here, as it does not add anything to the preceding study, which was closed with the previous chapter. A longer footnote would have sufficed here.
Despite these minor issues, Y`s book breaks new ground when it comes to how we deal with disabled people in our churches and proposes a radically different approach based on weakness and blemishes as potential divine manifestations. It fundamentally questions the way churches have approached this topic in the past in favor of an opposite solution based on biblical, Christological and eschatological studies. This author certain hopes that many churches will follow Y.s lead.
 See also the literature by this author on the same subject: “Abgestempelt”. Religion and People with Disabilities in the Ancient Near East. Saarbrücken: SVH-Verlag, 2013; “The Purity Laws as a Source for Conflict in the Old and New Testament”, Annual of the Japanese Biblical Institute 30/31, 2004/05, 5-21; “The ‘Lame’ in Lev 21, 17-23 and 2 Sam 5, 6-8”, AJBI 29, 2003, 5-30.
 See Hentrich, “Abgestempelt”, 90-115.
 On the subject of disability and sin see also my own article “The Forgiveness of Sins as Healing Method in the New Testament”, Rupert Breitwieser (ed.), Behinderungen und Beeinträchtigungen / Disability and Impairment in Antiquity, Studies in Early Medicine 2 = British Archaeological Reports S2359, Oxford: Archaeopress, 2012, 111-117.