Friday, June 27, 2014

Disability & Isaiah's Suffering Servant

Within the worshiping community, the suffering servant language from Isaiah 53 is so commonly interwoven throughout the Holy Week tradition that many forget the rich history of interpretation has only recently identified the servant as a Messianic figure. From as early as the writings of the early church, the servant has been identified as one of dozens of characters, including Job, Moses, or one of Israel’s kings.

In Disability & Isaiah’s Suffering Servant, Jeremy Schipper, PhD, associate professor of Hebrew Bible at Temple University, Pennsylvania and a Summer Institute of Theology and Disability faculty member adds his voice to the hundreds of critical scholars who have examined this passage.  By re-examining the textual imagery within the societal context of antiquity and the ethical culture of the early Jewish religious community, he suggests that the suffering servant is not an able-bodied individual who suffers temporarily, but a person with impairments and resulting societal disability vindicated by God.

Schipper divides his 168 page monograph (which includes 56 pages of extensive endnotes) into four short chapters.  The first chapter reviews different conceptualizations of disability.  Schipper reminds interpreters to avoid reading disability passages of antiquity through a modern western medical model.  The author painstakingly reviews dozens of time where the Hebrew Bible’s language is replete with descriptions of the limits of bodies – those that do not work as expected for the cultural norms -- including a variety of skin diseases, speech impediments, injuries, infertility, and even stature. While the ancient texts rarely reflect on causation, it does illustrate each impairment as a lived social experience. He further suggests that in antiquity, debilitating events were very rarely temporary – a non-impaired body was not necessarily the norm.  He cautions the modern reader to refrain from making assumptions where the scripture is silent. Schipper critiques modern scholars too intent on historical identification for glossing over disability imagery.

In chapter two, Schipper constructs his argument. Isolating this servant song from others, he references other ancient Mesopotamian literature to inform the visual imagery of impairment as it relates to the isolating social experience of disability -- including Babylonian tradition of using persons with intellectual disabilities to receive punishments on the king’s behalf). He suggests that while God does ultimately vindicate the servant, there is no textual support that any impairments were cured. Finally, through an extensive analysis of textual morphology, he rebuts scholarship which claims this passage is about an able-bodied servant killed or imprisoned.

Chapters three and four reviews the church history of character interpretation in Isaiah 53 – from a person with a disability in a Biblical poem morphing to the now normate understanding of an able bodied suffering servant type of Christ and symbol of the collective exilic community. Schipper suggests that early translations choice of words (i.e. anointed instead of marred) helped create a consistent contextual theology for the early church, but lost essential imagery in the process.  He praises Jerome’s fifth century Vulgate translation as an exception – disability language was predominate, even though Jerome’s commentary downplayed its influence.  Schipper cautions readers not to automatically turn disability imagery into either prophetic or kingly imagery- neither are mutually exclusive.  In his conclusion, suggests that while a disability privileged reading is necessary, it does not negate the importance of other thematic strands of interpretation; yet it does compel us to rethink how we imagine the ancient Biblical world.

Schipper’s handling of the ancient texts reveals he is a Hebrew scholar par excellence; yet he readily admits his training is not in Biblical or systematic theology. His methodology places him within the historical literary critical circles. At times his arguments seem circular and counter intuitive as he attempts to argue from silence when privileging a disability perspective.  While he appropriately illustrates that typological and collective arguments can reduce the richness of a text, he tends to lose perspective on the meta-narrative of unfolding revelation-- of course, that is not his task.  The wonder of the closed canon is the themes and types which unite the meta-narrative.  Yet, I cannot fault his endeavor – the story of God includes persons with disability--which the church often forgets.  One wonders about the both/and of anointed/marred interpreted in typological context.  Does the Messianic typology leave room for the fully divine / fully human Christ to have bodily impairments?

I would recommend this monograph to anyone interested in what the Bible has to say on disability and suffering. Thankfully, the Hebrew has been transliterated in a simple format; students with a Hebrew background will find it easy to engage in additional study.