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The Bible and Disability: A commentary, edited by Sarah Melcher, Mikeal C. Parsons, and Amos Yong

05 October 2018

Looking at the Bible on disability is revealing, says John Barton

ALONGSIDE other “perspectivally produced” commentaries such as The Women’s Bible Commentary (2012) and True to our Native Land: An African American New Testament commentary (2007), the editors here offer a commentary focused on disability.

They do not claim that every verse in the Bible looks different through the eyes of a person with a disability, and so they have, very reasonably, not produced a complete verse-by-verse commentary. Instead, for each biblical book they have selected passages or themes that raise the issue of disability in some way.

This does not mean simply passages that overtly address disability, though there is naturally much on the laws in Leviticus and Numbers about bodily impairments, and on passages in the Gospels such as the story of the woman with the haemorrhage, and the injunctions to cut off offending limbs.

Much more, however, the emphasis falls on not treating “normate physicality” as the default position. A Bible that concentrates on the one who, in the words of the book of Isaiah, “was despised and rejected” for having no physical beauty, and who ended his earthly days through the ultimately disabling punishment of crucifixion, cannot be expected to see physical “perfection” as a norm.

Where there does seem to be an assumption that a beautiful body correlates with a righteous life — as in Proverbs and, perhaps, the Song of Songs — there may be need for a “resistant” reading. But more often the team of commentators (all but one North American, I think) find a way to affirm that the Bible gets it right in its treatment of disability. Moses, after all, was disabled (“heavy of tongue”), and yet was God’s chosen messenger; and the afflicted Job was a true witness to the nature of God.

The commentary begins with a preface (by John Swinton) that affirms an extraordinarily high doctrine of scriptural inspiration, and most of the contributors seem to line up with this, scarcely ever suggesting that the Bible might be wrong in any of its statements, and thus giving themselves a hard time. They also tend to take the text quite literally, tending to see metaphorical readings of disability as too easy a way of handling difficult texts.

The independence of the commentary on each book (or group of books) means that there is a lot of repetition: thus we are told many times that there are three models of disability: medical, social, and cultural. But since readers will probably dip into the book rather than read it through, as a reviewer must, this probably does not matter much. Most of the commentators favour the cultural model, in which impairment is distinguished from disability, the latter being at least partly conditioned by social expectations and provisions.

One striking feature that emerges from the excellent literature survey in Sarah J. Melcher’s introduction is how much disability readings have been a concern of Old rather than New Testament commentators. That balance is redressed here, with good treatments of the Gospels and of St Paul, another person with a “thorn in the flesh”.

This is a stimulating addition to a growing literature on the Bible and disability. Beyond its particular focus, it reminds us how different the Bible looks when seen through the eyes of different people, and how far a traditional “non-disabled” gaze overlooks much that a person with a disability will notice.

John Barton is Emeritus Oriel and Laing Professor of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture at Oxford, a Senior Research Fellow of Campion Hall, Oxford, and an Anglican priest.


The Bible and Disability: A commentary
Sarah Melcher, Mikeal C. Parsons, and Amos Yong, editors
SCM Press £35
Church Times Bookshop special price £30

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