Disability in the Hebrew Bible: Interpreting Mental and Physical Differences
Saul M. Olyan
Cambridge University Press, 2008
202 pp., 95.99
Reviewed by Amy Julia Becker
Disability Then and Now
If I had a nickel for every time Saul Olyan uses the word "stigmatize" and its cognates in Disability in the Hebrew Bible, I would have been rich by the end of this slim volume. Well, maybe not rich, but I would have had a lot of nickels. The lingo of the Ivory Tower permeates the book, and it impedes Olyan's ability to evaluate constructively the language, imagery, stories, and laws surrounding persons with disabilities in the Hebrew Bible.
Olyan sets out to "reconstruct the Hebrew Bible's particular ideas of what is disabling and the potential social ramifications of those ideas," and he does so with the assumption that disability is "largely if not exclusively a social construction designed to exclude and exert power." Olyan is not alone in his assumption; scholars within the field of disability studies generally assume that disability is a concept not grounded in reality but grounded in unfortunate notions of what constitutes "the norm."
I'm sympathetic to this position. For instance, most people think of deafness as a disability. But consider a small island community in which fifty percent of the inhabitants have inherited a gene causing deafness. In order for everyday life to happen on that island, everyone—those who can hear and those who cannot—needs to know sign language. Because deafness is considered an acceptable version of normal, it is no longer disabling. Or consider my friend Jessica. She graduated from the University of Richmond as a Cigna scholar. She lives in an apartment in Old Town, Alexandria. She drives herself to her job at a government agency, and she is now working on her MBA. She has traveled to Europe. She has also endured fifteen operations and walks with canes, due to cerebral palsy. Although there are limitations on her abilities (walking on ice, for instance, is more treacherous for her than for me), due to medical advances and structural accommodations to buildings and walkways, her experience of life is akin to that of any other twentysomething professional in the United States. In many ways, especially in our culture, disability is a social construct, and it is important to expose it as such. But it is unhelpful to take this modern critique of the concept of disability, superimpose it upon biblical texts, and conclude, in Olyan's words, that biblical writers "create categories of stigmatized persons whom they seek to marginalize as well as their antitype."
Disability in the Hebrew Bible examines the treatment of both physical and mental disability, notions of beauty and ugliness, and concepts of wholeness and incompletion as they pertain to humans, animals, and even the stones used to build the temple. As a catalogue of references, this book is a helpful tool. It raises important questions about Israel's and Yhwh's attitude toward individuals with disabilities, as many of those individuals were excluded from temple worship and participation in communal life. Olyan demonstrates that people with disabilities were forced into a separate and devalued space within Israel's culture. He does not, however, demonstrate that the writers intended to marginalize and stigmatize those with disabilities, nor does he adequately explain the compassion demonstrated toward those with disabilities. As a critique of the texts, their writers, and the God they represent, this book suffers from unexamined assumptions about the nature of disability and the nature of God.
In the midst of providing a series of verses and stories that refer to people we would now call disabled, Olyan insists—again, and again, and again—that the biblical writers stigmatize and marginalize persons with disabilities. They do so first as an exertion of power: The beautiful and able-bodied person feels powerful and privileged because the disabled person has been excluded from worship or from community. Second, they do so as a reflection of the nature of God. Yhwh is holy, and therefore Yhwh is whole, and everything that comes into contact with Yhwh must similarly be whole. Animals with "defects" are not acceptable as sacrifices. Only stones that have been untouched by a tool may be used to construct the altar of burnt offering. Priests with "defects" cannot offer sacrifices. The blind and the lame have no access to the temple.
Any modern reader should question the value system in place within the Israelite culture and the values that Yhwh seems to affirm in rejecting the sacrifices and even presence of those labeled "defective." And yet the problem with treating these texts solely as power plays is the wealth of other passages that offer consolation from Yhwh to those with disabilities. Olyan, predictably, views these countervailing texts with skepticism. Throughout much of the Hebrew Bible, those with disabilities are compared to the poor, the needy, the widow, and the orphan. Olyan writes, "texts such as these may have been intended to challenge negative representations of the blind and other dependent sufferers by suggesting that such persons are of special interest to the powerful, including the deity. They nonetheless affirm their weakness, vulnerability, dependence, and lack of agency, thereby stigmatizing them." Olyan is unwilling to acknowledge the complexity of these texts as both affirming Yhwh's care for those with disabilities while at the same time reinforcing potentially harmful attitudes.
In addition to being holy, Yhwh is powerful, and passages within the Hebrew Bible repeatedly envision a future in which the blind see, the lame walk, and the deaf hear. And Olyan argues that these texts further stigmatize and marginalize: "When disabled persons are mentioned in these visions of an ideal future, they function, to a large degree, as vehicles for the display of Yhwh's agency." In other words, persons with disabilities are merely props placed on Yhwh's stage in order to demonstrate Yhwh's power. There is no room in Olyan's reading for the possibility that Yhwh, and Yhwh's people, care for those among them who are in need. There is no room for genuine compassion.
Many biblical texts do function in such a way as to marginalize those with disabilities, and yet it is a stretch to assume that they were intended by their writers to function in this way. Moreover, Olyan gives no credit to the writers' concern for those with disabilities and he fails to consider the subversive nature of many of these texts given the contemporaneous cultural assumptions about disability. He mentions but does not explore the fact that the biblical texts differ from other ancient Middle Eastern literature (and even from the Dead Sea Scrolls) in being less negative toward those with disabilities. He fails to acknowledge the reality of life for those with disabilities, the reality that an inability to see, or hear, or walk, did make for dangerous living, did force people into a place of need. To dismiss texts that demonstrate concern for those with disabilities and offer hope for a future without blindness, deafness, and so forth, is to dismiss the reality of living with a disability in ancient times as well as the present moment.
I mentioned my friend Jessica earlier. And, as I mentioned, Jessica's life is far more similar to mine than it is different. She is not in a special category of human being. She is no less valuable than any of the rest of us. She has needs and limitations, as do I. At the same time, just as I hold out hope that in the life to come I will be transformed—physically, emotionally, and spiritually—so too Jessica holds out hope for transformation, and her hope includes a desire to walk without canes. Her hope includes a desire to be free from chronic pain in her back and legs. Her hope includes a desire to be healed of cerebral palsy, healed of her disability. The God of the Hebrew Bible, the God in whom Jessica's hope resides, is not only a God of power and holiness, but also a God of healing and restoration, a God of compassion for all.
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