Biblical Understanding of People with Disabilities
I think that the Christian Bible as a whole carries a mix of views on disability. On the one hand, the Bible shows a very negative and exclusive view against people with disability, giving a basis to justify a lot of prejudice and discrimination(s) against disabled people. On the other hand, it reflects sympathy, understanding, and special care for them. These two contrasting views have been representatively used to describe people with disability from ancient biblical times to the present. Regardless of which view it is, however, it is a fact that people with disability are lowly treated and isolated in both biblical and modern times. Therefore, we need to read and (re)interpret biblical passages related to people with disabilities in our own way and in a more realistic way. The Bible has been continually analyzed and reinterpreted in light of its own Zeitgeist (time spirit) and modern perspectives. Third World theologies such as African Black theology, Asian theology, feminist theology and Minjung theology have come to the fore in providing great insights for reading the Bible in new and various ways. Likewise, it is very interesting and helpful for us to read the Bible from the view of disability.
I am a person with disability, a biblical student, specifically of the Old Testament. I am seriously interpreting the Bible for our times and trying to apply it to our present society, which is rapidly changing. I am keen about the way we understand biblical texts in terms of disability, for Christians are usually influenced by what the Bible teaches and how it is interpreted. To deal with this, I shall carefully choose words to refer to people with disability. There are various designations with different nuances and intention, e.g. disabled people, differently abled people, or people with disability. I prefer to use the word “people with disability”, because it is neutral and tells what it is without any connotation, and it is not saying in a roundabout way. It tells what they look and what they actually are, as they are.
For our Bible study, I chose four groups of Bible passages: Leviticus
13:45-46 and 21:16-24 (cf. 22:17-25); Matthew 8:5-13, 9:1-8, 18-26
and 15:21-28; and John 9:1-12. We are to read and discuss these and
to rethink and interpret them. These are all related with disabilities
or diseases. I am going to conclude with what God wants us to think
of ourselves, gleaning from the Bible and Jesus Christ, and with what
messages God gives all of us at this present time.
Disability from the view of purity (Lev. 13:45-46, 21:16-24)
Leviticus may be one of the most boring books in the Bible, which many people would most likely hesitate to read. It may also be the book that is most irrelevant for our times. Nevertheless it is very influential to many of us, affecting our attitude and way of thinking about the so-called impurity and purity, certain illnesses or diseases and disability. Isn't it so absurd and ironic?
Although I would like to take Leviticus chapters 13-14 as a whole, we shall focus on 13:45-46 and 21:16-24 only. Lev. 13:45-46 is from the larger context of chapters 11-16 about the matter of purity, which is a requisite of proper worship. Chapters 13-14 deal with impurity in detail, specifically the treatment and purification of people suffering from certain skin ailments that were regarded as contagious. Those who worship God properly with purity should not have any skin disease.
In Lev. 21-22 the theme of purity continues but its concern is mainly the priests who need to be in a state of ritual purity to perform proper worship. The sanctity of the priesthood itself was indispensable to the fulfillment of Israel's mandate to become a holy nation. In case of sacrificial animals, whatever was sacrificed to God, had to be suitable, i.e. clean or pure, without scar or impairment. Lev. 21:16-24 and 22:17-25 emphasize the physical soundness of sacrificial materials as well as priests. The absence of blemishes and disfiguration was required of priests as the normal criterion of purity to perform a ritual, although those born with deformities or who had been injured were not totally deprived of material support.
These passages (Lev. 13, 14 and 21) are representative of those that justify and support prejudice and discrimination against people with diseases or disability. One is about skin disease that makes one inappropriate to take part in worship and even requires one to be isolated from the community. The other tells of the priest's physical impurity that disqualifies him from performing a ritual. These were the bases of ancient Israelite understanding and attitude in relation to people with disability in religious leadership.
It is very strange that creatures are categorized as clean or unclean, pure or impure, when God created everything good. Human beings are especially privileged to have been created in God’s image. This means that every creature has a religious meaning for both the ancient Israelites and modern Jewish people. Yet, to approach God, human beings have been conditioned to remain pure, meaning to look healthy and clean, without any deformity or spot. In particular, Lev. 13-14 deal with what has been translated as "leprosy or skin disease" or "plague-spot". It is taken as typical impurity or uncleanness of houses, garments, or human beings.
People with skin and infectious diseases were not only disqualified to worship God in the temple or any holy places (2 Chron. 23:19).2 They were also isolated or excluded from the community. They had to have signs that were easily seen on their bodies, e.g. wearing torn clothes, letting hair loose, covering the lower part of their faces and crying out, 'Unclean! Unclean!' They must live outside the camp (Lev. 13:45-46). They were even to be killed if they took part in the sacrificial rituals (Lev. 15:31). The reason why they were kept away from the public and why they had to announce their presence or nearness was to prevent contamination. For the same reason, lepers in the Middle Ages had to rattle little bits of wood as they walked.
It was the priest’s duty to diagnose the sick, give medical treatment and determine its duration. The sick had to perform certain actions to remove their uncleanness or impurity as prescribed by the priest. Lev. 14 hints at the priestly rationale for excluding the ill or disabled from worship, according to its requirement of a guilt offering. This guilt offering was an essential element of the ritual to return the healed person to full cultic status of purity. A sin offering implied that moral wrongdoing, desecration of sancta, or encroachment upon the divine presence in the sanctuary, has taken place. This suggests that in general the Bible regarded sickness as a punishment from God. Thus, people with skin diseases were regarded as sinners, who were punished; and their sickness was regarded as a sign of moral failure.3 This relationship between disease and God’s punishment was not only applied to skin diseases but to all kinds of diseases with infection. Thus, people with diseases were classified as "unclean" and kept in isolation from others until they were confirmed "clean". People with diseases must ask forgiveness of their sins in order to have physical recovery.
We can imagine that it must have been shameful and unpleasant for ordinary people to stay with impure people or to be their companion. In biblical times, there were some people who suffered from skin disease or leprosy: Miriam (Num. 12:10), Uzziah (II King 15:5), and Gehazi (II Kings 5:27). All were said to have been afflicted by the disease because of their rebellion against God's commands (Num. 12:9-15; Deut 24:8-9). Miriam's appearance is especially a crucial matter. Numbers 12:10 states that she is “like snow.” In Aaron's prayer (Num. 12:12) he pleads, "Let her not be as one dead, whose flesh is half consumed when he comes out of his mother's womb. J. Milgrom's4 theories are supported by this passage: (a) that it was a result of divine punishment; (b) the severe impurity was attributable to its death-like appearance.
Against the priests' with disability
Another text, Leviticus 21:16-24 is concerned with the problem of priests with disability. Visible physical perfection is the first and foremost qualification for the priesthood. Leviticus gives a list of priests with physical defects who cannot come near the temple or in the sanctuary. This includes the blind, the lame, the disfigured, the deformed, a man with a crippled foot or hand, the hunchbacked, the dwarfed, a man with any eye defect, a man with festering or running sores or damaged testicles (Lev. 21:18-20). The expression "not to have access" is repeatedly mentioned in Lev. 21:17-18, 21 and 23, which means "forbidden to have access to the altar." The qualification to be a priest is from seemingly physical health, not from intelligent or moral soundness. Appearance is the most important factor. The same principle that every creature should be clean to be offered to God is applied to the priesthood (Lev. 11). To be a priest, one has to have an able body, meaning no visible defect or impairment.
However, even though the priest has physical imperfection, he is not completely excluded from the community or the tent of meeting, but just restricted to have access to the altar. He is not declared impure; he need not dress differently or announce his impurity; he need not dwell outside the camp. One thing he is not permitted is to offer sacrifices because he is judged not good enough to be near to God. But he is allowed to eat food offered to God. This means that the priest with disability cannot perform the sacrifice as far as he is physically imperfect. That the priest is not allowed to perform sacrificial offerings to God means that he is deprived of a means of living for himself. He simply maintains a social status as priest. While he had no religious and official role to play, like performing offerings to God, he does not starve because he is allowed to eat sacrificial food. He has to depend on other priests for his survival.
This is the general picture of ancient biblical Israelite society maybe from the first Temple period to the New Testament times and of near Eastern countries as well. Is it just an old story of days gone by? No. Its practice is still going on but one thing has changed. Medical problems like skin diseases, eye defect, festering or running sores, damaged testicles, etc. are no longer stigmatized as in biblical times. Fortunately they are no longer regarded as signs of impurity or uncleanness, even though they are not perfectly cured in medical terms. However, the same rule by the Bible is still and subtly being applied to people with permanent physical disabilities up to this time, especially when they have a kind of disabled appearance.
It is understandable that in ancient times people with infectious skin diseases were isolated from the others as there was little medical knowledge about ailments. It may be the same reason that people with a cold or flu hesitate to go to meeting places in order not to infect others. However, people with life-long disability or diseases that are not infectious also suffer not only from their physical appearance or pain but also from social or psychological isolation or exclusion throughout their lifetime. This leads to social prejudice and discrimination against them. Worse, they are religiously judged as sinners because their disability is understood as God’s judgment. Consequently, people with disabilities have to cope with their sinful consciousness and social death as well as their physical discomfort in order to survive. They have to bear ostracism, limited social interaction and chances, or being excluded from the community, whether fully or partly. This is the negative picture that the Bible writers depicted about people with contagious diseases or priests with disability. Therefore, the Bible has played a big role in supporting the stigmatization, exclusion, and elimination of people with disabilities.
However, there are also Old Testament passages that give a different paradigm. Lev. 19:14 instructs: "Do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block in front of the blind, but fear your God. I am the Lord." Lev. 19:18b reminds to “love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.” What is a stumbling block to us? What does it mean “to love your neighbor as yourself”? Can these two verses not be balanced with the Levitical passages earlier mentioned? If people with disability still have to fight against a lot of discrimination, against poverty due to a lack of chances and human rights, or exclusion, then it means that we are still caught by the Levitical worldview of more than two thousand years ago. For people with disability life is a battlefield to survive. Before us there are still heaps of obstacles and barriers to beat physically, socio-economically, psychologically and religiously. This must be the last injustice of the world that we Christians have to withstand together today.
What is clear is that the idea and justification that Leviticus gives about people with disability or disease is not all that it intends to give. In Ex. 22:21-24 we meet the typical three groups of the weak: (a) the alien, (b) the widow and (c) the orphan. God commanded that these should not be mistreated or oppressed. Who are the typical weak in the 21st century? I believe that they are people with disability, deprived of their rights to live humanly lives. The Bible gives the message that God wants the stronger to live in peace with the weaker, the male with the female, and the Jews with the Gentiles. Then, doesn’t God want people with ability to go hand in hand with people with disability? This is our dream for a better world.
People with disability exposed to the world
There are more than seventy (70) passages where Jesus cures an illness, raises a person from the dead, or takes away a disability. Of these, approximately twenty-six (26) scripture passages and stories about people with disabilities such as the paralyzed, the blind, the lame and the deaf are in the gospels.
With the exception of Bartimaeus, the other disabled people in the gospels are nameless. Most people of disablity are poor, unemployed, beggars, or servants. They are usually patronized, treated with contempt, publicly rebuked and humiliated, screamed at and spoken at, instead of spoken to. Nevertheless, we feel that Jesus was concerned about them. He approached them closely with passion and healed them to return to society. Therefore it is possible for us to interpret those passages in a way that is empowering for people with disability. As a matter of fact many interpreters do so. However, I do realize that the way the disability passages are often interpreted is rather contributing to the oppression and marginalization of people with disabilities. In many cases the healing stories are quite embarrassing and disappointing. Let us read four passages from Matthew: 8:5-13, 9:1-8, 20-22 and 15:21-28.
In these passages, we meet three people with disability: the paralyzed, the blind, and one who is demon-possessed. None of their names are known. Fortunately, however, four of them suffering from either disability or demon-possession happened to meet Jesus and were completely healed by him. Otherwise they would have lived very painful and disgraceful lives with their chronic illness or disability during their lifetime, together with their families. Let us observe the process of their being healed by Jesus. There is something in common about their being healed: it is by faith that they are healed, whether those with faith are themselves or their parent (or their master).
In the second passage (9:1-8), the paralytic was also healed by Jesus, but additionally hearing that "your sins are forgiven." The meaning of this has been disputed. It somehow leaves an imprint that illness or disability has something to do with one's sins or God's punishment, no matter what interpretation one takes. Throughout those stories the healing is understood as the sign of faith or the result of God's forgiveness of sins. If so, what about people with disability who did not and do not experience physical or visible healing or curing, including myself? Aren’t people with disability good enough to be healed? Do they have more sins yet to be forgiven? As N. Eiesland observes, “failure to be healed is often assessed as a personal flaw in the individual, such as unrepentant sin or a selfish desire to remain disabled.”5
The expression in Matthew 9:1-8 is seen in Psalm 32, in which healing from illness is understood as a sign of God's forgiveness of sin. We can suppose that Jesus might equate the forgiveness of sins with the condition of physical healing. We hear the same sort of position in John 5:2-15. This passage tells us that many disabled people (blind, lame, paralyzed) used to lie near the Bethesda pool in Jerusalem, close to the Sheep Gate. Among them was an invalid lying there for 38 years and whom Jesus healed. Later, Jesus found him at the temple and said to him, "Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you." This again reminds us of the causal relationship between sin and disability. It is very awkward and uncomfortable for me to read it, especially when it is read from the altar.
In these stories and elsewhere, we see Jesus' special concern and cure for people with disability. However, we also see the link between disability and sin. This implies to us that repentance and forgiveness of sins are prerequisite to healing. It leads us further to think that people with disability could take part in God's kingdom only after they are released and recovered from their disability. Throughout the healing stories of a centurion's paralyzed servant, a paralytic, a woman bleeding for 12 years, and a daughter of the faithful Canaanite woman, we observe that faith is qualified as pre-condition for healing. This then implies that it is because of the lack of faith of people with disability that they remain disabled. In other words, people with disability are sinners who are yet to repent.
Let us go back to Jesus' activities in the gospels during his time. As we know, in those days people with disability were totally excluded from society and from the temple or any religious meetings because they are impure and unclean in religious terms. It was a social tradition of long standing commonly accepted by all Jews and other ancient nations. However, Jesus was different from his contemporaries. He let them be around himself and called them close to him. When he walked through, he did not mind whether people around him were sick or disabled, but he showed a great concern and love to them. He was with them and gave what they needed.
Then, why did he ask for faith or forgiveness of sins as a condition for healing? I assume that the reason that he seemed to view faith as a requisite for healing and that he gave forgiveness of sins was to highlight the traditional way that every person of his time knew and practiced. Jesus was doubtlessly a historical Jew, attending temple worship regularly and practicing Jewish Law, as his contemporaries did. Indeed, of course, he was different from others in that he broke down the Jewish custom and religious practices like Sabbath and meeting women publicly, when necessary. In case of healing Jesus might have wanted to liberate people with disability not only from their physical illness or disability but also from psychological and religious guilt pressing them in front of those who judged them as disabled medically and as sinners religiously. In other words, the real healing had to lift not only their physical disability but also their psychological and religious guilt. K. Black tells the difference between cure and healing as follows:
Jesus' healing activity restores afflicted individuals to purity, to wholeness, i.e. restored to full and active membership in the holy community, the people of God. Jesus used to break down the social bias and boundaries that were established by Jewish society. Instead of Jesus becoming contaminated by people with disabilities labeled unclean, hies made them go back to their family and friends and to participate in temple worship. After living with a flow of blood for 12 years, alienated and isolated from any kind of relationship, the woman is welcomed back into the community and Jesus even calls her "daughter." The invalid who was lying at the Sheep Gate for 38 years, turned up in the temple area after being healed. We can assume that he could then take part in temple worship and return into the community and live with ordinary people. He was no longer unclean and impure. He became completely healed. In John 9:1-41 we meet a man born blind. Here Jesus’ disciples were interested in the past cause of the man's blindness, but Jesus spoke of its future purpose instead. We witness Jesus' radical shift of paradigm in understanding the origin of disability. The typical sin/sickness metaphor is reversed so that disability is no longer a symbol for humanity's sinfulness but a starting or turning point for his future and change.
In this respect Jesus was a real healer, not just a medical doctor or a miracle maker. Jesus says clearly, "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick... I have not come to call the righteous, but the sinners” (Mt. 9:12-13). That is the real healing art. To Jesus there is no sharp difference between the righteous and the sinners, between the healthy and the sick. This principle is applied to people with disability, too. To him there is no difference between people with disability and people with ability in religious terms. He was willing to come close to the sick and people with disability because they needed him.
To this we can add that there is another aspect that disability or illness can give a chance to meet God spiritually in a deeper level. Job and the suffering man in Isaiah 53 come to find out their physical suffering as the sign of God's choice. Through physical suffering they can understand life and its meaning better and can reach to maturity, both spiritually and personally. In this respect we remember Paul’s saying, “My power is made perfect in weakness” and “when I am weak, I am strong” (II Cor. 12:9, 12). Jesus was also suffering in order to make atonement for human beings’ sins. Cooper proposes that by thinking of God as disabled we human beings can deepen or understand the nature of God’s creative and redemptive love.7 Eiesland symbolizes Jesus Christ as disabled God, thereby contributing to the idea that “the disabled God repudiates the conception of disability as a consequence of individual sin.”8 I think that this is only an explanation of what disability means in life. This clearly shows that disability is not just suffering from sin or lack of faith, and suffering does not bring forth only discomfort or guilt.
On the other hand, disability is not just the personal problem of those who have it, but their families have also to get through and struggle with it and its effects as much as they do. It stands at the heart of their life and families during their lifetime. They have to go through segregation from people or society, poverty, unemployment, discrimination, isolation and religious judgment as sinners. Their faith and behavior are not seen as good enough as far as they are not physically recovered from illness or disability. Even in these days it is still in practice in society and even worse in church. People with disabilities now tend to have rather more and better civil rights to access in secular society. Our Korean government, since 1998, forcefully requires newly constructed public buildings like retail stores, museums, libraries and schools to be accessible. Religious institutions, however, are exempt from the public accommodations aspect of the law. How absurd that a restaurant cannot legally keep people with disability out but a church can!
I am still uncomfortable with some Bible interpretations of Jesus' healing stories that uphold the conventional view about people with disability as object of charity, sympathy and special care. Such a conventional view would rather help to justify judging and oppressing of the disabled. With all these difficulties before us, should we abandon hope that the healing stories can provide an interpretive context for a fresh theological understanding of disability? Should we be content to claim that the stories are useful insofar as they describe the Christ as a compassionate and inclusive healer? Should we be content to preach this good news to people with disability among us?
Throughout the healing stories cited earlier and elsewhere in the
gospels I see some of clues as to how modern society and the church
should come to terms with disability. Briefly, Jesus included the
sick and disabled into his concern and united them into society by
means of healing, although the healing stories may cause a kind of
discomfort and embarrassment to some of us. Nevertheless he was the
first person in the Bible to include people with disability as object
of his concern and who exposed them to the world. His ministry aimed
for them to be spread in society and to live social and spiritual
lives with ordinary people. This is what we are to struggle for in
the long term.
2 Doorkeepers were stationed at the gates of the Lord 's temple to ensure that the unclean did not enter (NIV: 2 Chron 23:19).
3 S. Melcher, “Visualizing the perfect
cult: the Priestly rationale for Exclusion," in Human Disability
and the Service of God: Reassessing Religious Practice, eds. N. Eiesland
and D. Saliers (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998), 58.
7 B. Cooper, "The Disabled God,"
in Theology Today 49 (1992), 173-82.
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