Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Disability in the Hebrew Bible

Language Matters.  Those who have taken the R-Word pledge understand the disabling effects of words.  In order to adequately develop theologies of disability, attention must be paid to both the social context in which Biblical passages emerged and to the very words themselves.

In Disability In the Hebrew Bible: Interpreting Mental and Physical Differences, Saul M. Olyan (PhD – Harvard), professor of Judaic Studies at Brown University in Providence Rhode Island, investigates the earliest textual representations from a philological perspective.  By examining the words and their related cognate forms in other languages, he articulates some insight into how disability obtained meaning in ancient writings.

The study begins by examining the physical characteristics that mark either beauty or ugliness in the ideal male and female and then relates the contrast between blemish and perfection.  While there is major overlap, the categories are not exclusively congruent, particularly in the Wisdom literature.

Olyan examines blemish further and proposes there was another broader taxonomy inclusive of disability based in weakness, vulnerability, and dependence.  He discovers that mental disabilities and some physical disabilities did not fall into the blemish category, but all shared marginalization and stigmatization as evidenced by surrounding textual information.  He acknowledges that much of the prophetic utopian vision uses persons with disability to demonstrate YHWH’s purpose and power.  While some of the text indicates continued marginalization, there is a strong thread that also shows the opposite.  Those with disabilities, both ambulatory and non-ambulatory, are welcomed back from exile, into worship, and made beautiful in their disability.

Olyan refocuses his attention from persons with blemish to the relationship between wholeness and holiness.  The same stigmatizing language used for people were also utilized for building materials and sacrifices deemed unsuitable for the temple.  He concludes his work by examining how the Qumran community actually broadened the category of defect and increased marginalization, prohibiting any from entering the community assembly.

Olyan accomplished his purpose of reconstructing disability taxonomy through the analysis of the text.  The philological method utilized in this book is an important key in reshaping our contextual notions in the interpretation of certain passages from the Hebrew Bible.  The limits of this method are acknowledged -- it is impossible to determine motive behind the textual fragment.  Isolating text can give insight, but also removes it from the larger context of the Biblical tradition and redemptive history.  His work does, however, demonstrate that the religious trajectory has been more exclusive than even the original writers intended and is in specific contrast to a line of prophetic utopian envisioning which seeks to privilege disability.  Further scholarship, particularly in the eschatological passages, will be welcomed.

Disability In the Hebrew Bible is relevant particularly to those engaged in Hebrew Bible or disability studies, as well as those seeking to understand the Judean context into which Christ spoke and performed healings.