Disability and the church, chapter 2

Review part 2, part 1 see here

In the second chapter of The Bible, Disability and Church, Amos focuses his attention on the “Hebrew Bible/Old Testament” (his label, highlighting the importance of language and recognising that the Christian OT is the Jewish Bible). He begins with the topic that I have touched on before (see here), Leviticus 21:17 to 23. Amos is far gentler than I have been, seeking to explain the exclusion as being connected only to specific functions of the Levitical priesthood, outside of which “blemished” people had full access to the temple and its activities. Indeed, he makes the important observation that a focus on the exclusion of this passage should not override the emphasis throughout the Hebrew Bible of God’s electing the poor and marginalised (i.e. Israel) and entering into a gracious and empowering covenant with them.

I would note, in response, that we should not try to dodge discrimination when we see it; that it is vital we unmask prejudice, especially when it is found in sacred texts. This is necessary because the scriptures, more than any other piece of literature, frame the attitudes and values of whole societies. To give Amos his due, he does not dodge the issue but rather than focus on the original intent of the biblical authors, he points his criticism at the various ways in which this passage (and others like it) have been interpreted. In doing this he moves beyond Leviticus 21 to address the Deuteronomic curses, which link sickness (and disability – which go together in these texts) to the punishing hand of God. As he notes:

This leads us to the heart of the problem for any traditional theology of disability: that disabling conditions and ailments seem linked with purposive divine action – curses, no less! – intended to deal with and respond to the disobedience of God’s people (Kindle Locations 343-344).

And again:

when the Pentateuchal scheme of things is read from the normate perspective, an understanding of God as the one who is without blemish, and an associated understanding of all blemishes and diseases, as well is the people who have them, as being an holy, imperfect, and ultimately symbolic of human disobedience against God’s law.”

Having set up the problem, Amos goes on to explore various ways in which the logic of the Pentateuch might be “redeemed.” He focuses attention on Leviticus 21, taking on various readings: spiritualised (which ignore the historical reality and speak of spiritual sickness et cetera) and Christological (which focus on Jesus’ incarnation as the suffering servant – who identifies with the disabled and redeems them). It is in these discussions that Amos is at his best, since he does not flinch at identifying the inadequacies of each of these readings, which inevitably render disability as constituting a person’s inferiority.

Rather than force resolution, Amos sets these difficulties in the context of the broader narrative of the Hebrew Bible, identifying alternate and liberative stories of disability: Jacob with his limp, King David and the crippled Mephibosheth, the story of Job, with its refusal to accept suffering as curse; the Psalms of lament. What becomes apparent is that, however one reads the covenantal connection between Israel’s sin and suffering, the God of Israel is, above all, the God who embraces the sufferer (and the suffering nation of Israel), who elevates their plight, who refuses to accept their oppression and who provides hope for all those experiencing hardship – whatever its nature and cause.

And in attempting to rush this summary I have obfuscated Amos’ clear and lucid argument. So if my work has left you confused, best to go straight to the source – Kindle version click here, Amos Yong, the Bible Disability and the Church.

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