The Bible and Disability

A Commentary

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Sarah J. Melcher, Mikeal C. Parsons, Amos Yong
Studies in Religion, Theology, and Disability
  • Waco, TX: 
    Baylor University Press
    , October
     2017.
     510 pages.
     $59.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781602586215.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

This thematically and methodologically diverse collection is similar in size and scope to The Queer Bible Commentary (ed. Deryn Guest, Robert Goss, Mona West, and Thomas Bohache, Hymns Ancient & Modern, 2008); indeed, some of the same contributors write for both. The volume is divided by genre and authorship, not by book, and is thematic, not a line-by-line reading of the biblical text.

Two particular highlights are the attention given to (in)fertility, and, relatedly, to eunuchs (part of whose “disability” is that they cannot have biological offspring). Sarah J. Melcher undertakes an impressive extended discussion of this topic with reference to Abram/Abraham and Sarai/Sarah. For Melcher, many Genesis narratives are about characters’ attempts to take fertility and succession into their own hands. There is a reminder here that disability is cultural: we might not consider infertility “disabling” as such today, but ancient writers frequently did. Jeremy Schipper, writing on Ruth, however, points out that although neither Ruth nor Orpah had children in their respective ten years of marriage to Naomi’s sons, the textual assumption here is not that infertility is a disability and fertility the norm, but merely that conception is always a result of specific divine blessing. By contrast, holds Schipper, in 1 Samuel, it seems that Hannah was infertile because God had actively “closed” her womb, until God “remembered” her.

J. Blake Couey notes that infertility is not just a female issue. Trito-Isaiah begins with the declaration that eunuchs will have a name better than sons and daughters that will not be cut off. Inability to procreate is, indeed, seen as disabling here, says Couey; however, significantly, among the promises made to eunuchs in Isaiah 56, offspring is not one of them. Couey interprets this as a lack of textual promise that their disability will be removed. It is therefore possible to persist in the community and in relationship to God with one’s disability (as Melcher also notes with reference to Job, not cured of his skin disease even after his restoration).

This makes for an important counterpoint to some other Hebrew Bible texts. David Tabb Stewart’s impeccably-researched chapter includes tabulated lists of categories of disability in Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, including comparisons between human and animal bodies, typology by body part affected, the resulting ritual status, and the designated sanction or consequence. Stewart notes that damaged or uncircumcised genitals are the only thing that entail permanent exclusion from the community. Eunuchs are therefore in a peculiarly “disabled” position in these texts even alongside a range of other types of impairment. Importantly, though, Stewart notes, the Priestly texts assume that ritual uncleanness is the frequent, expected, default state for everyone: “Any … able state is unstable and impermanent … There is no starting or resting place where sacral ability is normal” (88). This has a notably leveling, democratizing consequence. Elsewhere across the books of Law, as in the Deuteronomist material, disability is more explicitly figured as punishment from God.

Eunuchs and fertility also crop up in Candida R. Moss’s thorough chapter on Mark and Matthew. Moss engages with the idea that, for these authors, particularly Mark, absent fertility is not negative in itself, but foreshadows a genderless eschaton: “Is it possible that the idealized early Christian body is infertile?” (296).

More broadly, some chapters explicitly note that there is no particular treatment of disability or impairment within many biblical books. These contributors tend to treat disability more symbolically, engaging in creative literary responses. For example, Kerry H. Wynn’s rich and robust chapter focuses on broader parallel issues such as the social construction of identity, competing authorities, challenges to agency, and passing and dependency versus independence with reference to 1 Chronicles-Esther.

Jennifer L. Koosed, writing authoritatively on Psalms, Lamentations, and Song of Songs, focuses on genre, holding that “poems layer meaning upon meaning; they are polyvocal. Biblical poetry in particular is not trying to convey historical realities as much as emotional experiences” (190). There are no disabled characters in these books, but all use disability imagery. This has implications for their use in present-day contexts, including liturgical ones: the often formulaic structure of their ritual use means they can allow people safely to “try on” and inhabit different experiences and emotions. As musical poetry, they have particular emotional resonance. Furthermore, suggests Koosed, via their imploring God not to be deaf, mute, and so on, the Psalms give space to conceive of God’s being these things in the first place. With regard to Lamentations, Koosed focuses on literary form: via its structure and tenor, it is wounding, presenting and exemplifying the questions of theodicy, suffering, and meaninglessness often associated with treatments of disability. But there is also resistance and subversion in the canon: “The bodies of the Song [of Songs] are … desirable, sexy, alluring and intriguing, not despite but because of their strangeness, hybridization, and lack of compliance with conventional categories” (208).

A theme recurring across several chapters (e.g., Melcher writing on Job, and Arthur J. Dewey and Anna C. Miller on Paul) is the existence of a “logic of domination” (422) in the texts which requires disabled readers today to speak back to them. The presence of protest and lament in the canon gives a mandate for ongoing resistance.

The editors have not attempted to synthesize the authors’ various standpoints. This is generally positive, but does mean that there is a relatively large amount of introduction and repetition of basic disability theory (e.g., social versus medical models of disability), and conversations with key scholars in the field such as Deborah Creamer, Amos Yong, and Nancy Eiesland. The collection will be a particularly useful teaching tool and reference source for those who need consult only one or two sections, since existing familiarity with the literature and its themes is not assumed. It does, however, become a little repetitive for anyone reading the whole book. That said, there is also plenty to challenge and intrigue those more conversant with the area.

Overall, the volume is an impressive accomplishment by some leading scholars of the field. It will prove a valuable teaching and research resource for years to come.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Susannah Cornwall is Senior Lecturer in Constructive Theologies at the University of Exeter.

Date of Review: 
March 28, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Sarah J. Melcher is professor emeritus of Hebrew Scriptures at Xavier University.

Mikeal C. Parsons is professor and Macon chair in religion at Baylor University.

Amos Yong is professor of theology and mission and director of the Center for Missiological Research at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California.

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