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A theology of disability: part 2

February 9, 2013

I have read some wonderful blogs, here and here, and articles in the last few hours, after posting on disability. In 2 Maccabees, the sons looked forward to a resurrection in which the limbs that were hacked off in death, would be restored. They would be restored to wholeness, which was for them, the way they had lived.

But in Leviticus 21, we can read what the law said with respect to people who live with different kinds of disabilities or impairments,

16 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: 17 Speak to Aaron and say: No one of your offspring throughout their generations who has a blemish may approach to offer the food of his God. 18 For no one who has a blemish shall draw near, one who is blind or lame, or one who has a mutilated face or a limb too long, 19 or one who has a broken foot or a broken hand, 20 or a hunchback, or a dwarf, or a man with a blemish in his eyes or an itching disease or scabs or crushed testicles. 21 No descendant of Aaron the priest who has a blemish shall come near to offer the Lord’s offerings by fire; since he has a blemish, he shall not come near to offer the food of his God. 22 He may eat the food of his God, of the most holy as well as of the holy. 23 But he shall not come near the curtain or approach the altar, because he has a blemish, that he may not profane my sanctuaries; for I am the Lord; I sanctify them.

It’s pretty all encompassing. No foreigners, no women, and no one who has any physical blemish. How do people deal with this passage? There is an interesting, and very touching little ebook by John Piper. I highly recommend it in all seriousness, as the story is compelling. But I was disturbed by the way this passage in Leviticus was handled. John Knight, the father of a profoundly disabled child recounts this from a conference,

In the afternoon session there was a panel dis- cussion, and someone asked, “What do we do with the hard texts in the Bible?” And a Jewish rabbi very quickly grabbed that and said, “Oh, you mean like in Leviticus? Well, we just ignore those passages. We know better now.” And I was thunder- struck by that. I didn’t have a response, because I was struggling with Leviticus, but I knew that answer couldn’t be right. And so that started me on the path of discovery. page 46

Okay, so what’s in Leviticus then? God’s perfect foreknowledge, perfect power, and perfect holiness—there’s that little phrase in there, “But he may eat” (Leviticus 21:22). It’s embedded right in there as a little clause. There it is. There’s your birthright. If I give you 80 years, there’s a season that you might have to live with this, but your birthright is secure. Nobody can take your birthright away from you. You are mine.

And it was five or six years after hearing that rabbi speak, I was sitting in the Roseville library just meditating over this and tears are rolling down my face at that thought. The birthright is secure. Nobody can take that away. An uncle can’t say, “Oh, you can’t eat because of your disability or your short arm or any- thing else.” No, I can eat. It’s a promise. It’s embedded in the very words that some want to take out. The protection is right there. page 48

He also discusses the fact that physical blemishes in this passage represent moral blemish, and this is a foreshadow of a perfect, sinless Jesus. page 48

I cannot help but feel that if someone thinks that this passage has some significance for us today, they must believe that there are two classes of Christians, those who offer sacrifices, or serve in the temple, as well as eat; and those who may only eat. I can’t see it any other way. If we think this passage has some application to today, does it not completely overturn the priesthood of all believers? Are we not all of us of the same status? Surely there are no longer any foreigners, any lesser sexed, any lesser abled, with regards to our standing in the community. Of course, we are not all going to be leaders, but we shouldn’t we all be eligible depending on our gifts and abilities.

I can see how a profoundly disabled child might not ever become a worship leader or pastor. True enough. But what about a hunchback? Are we going to let this somehow represent to us moral blemish, and fall back into the myth of Richard III, that he was an evil king because of his hunchback? The entire business boggles my mind.

Would it not be better to just ignore these passages, just as we ignore the command to burn the daughter of a priest if she is a prostitute? (It turns out my great aunt was a prostitute, but a few pictures of her remain in the family albums.) Shouldn’t we take all of Leviticus 20 and 21, and perhaps the rest of it, and simply admit that they should be ignored, or at least, only used to gain insight into the historical past. I realize that this does not seem like a theologically sophisticated response, but I am very grateful that I am not obliged to live my life with theological sophistication.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. February 9, 2013 9:47 pm

    There has not been a temple since 70 CE, so this and all other passages dealing with Temple sacrifices particular passage are effectively moot. You can try to read more into it if you want (as I guess Piper does), and there are lots of interesting developments in halacha (note that article just appeared this week). The rebuilding of the temple is associated with (for Jews) the arrival of the Messiah King and (for Christians) the return of the Messiah God — whom we are assured will clear up all of these messy details.

    This really marks the difference between Rabbinic Judaism (which holds that Moses received two torahs at Sinai — a written and oral torah) and (the relatively tiny) Karaite movement (which limits its understanding to the written torah). The classic criticism of “an eye for an eye” is a bit hard to understand — Rabbinic thought has held for thousand of years that this is a passage about monetary compensation for injuries.

    On perhaps a more interesting line, the restriction on those offering sacrifices mimics the restriction on animals permitted for sacrifice. This is related to, according to the Talmudic account in Tractate Gittin, the immediate cause of the destruction of the Temple — a general attitude of intolerance (towards an accidentally invited guest to a party, and towards a sacrificial gift from the caesar.) The San Francisco Contemporary Jewish Museum invited groups to animate the Talmud, and this is one of the passages selected:

    The message about tolerance is pretty loud and clear.

  2. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    February 9, 2013 10:04 pm

    Yes, the perfection of the server is mirrored in the perfection of the sacrifice. Thanks for the video! Neat!

    But if we do away with the these demands in Leviticus 21, shouldn’t we also do away with the laws preceding, that a woman can’t have sex during her period, and that men cannot have homosexual relationships? It is also odd that two relationships are never forbidden in the Bible. I am not sure why. One is father-daughter incest – curiously omitted – and the other is lesbian relationships, perhaps not a problem since there seems to be so much preoccupation with blood and semen, and since neither are involved in lesbian relationships – they are good to go.

    Anyway, there has to be full on discussion about this part of the Bible. We can’t just go on trying to make it make sense.

  3. February 9, 2013 11:01 pm

    I read these all as purity laws, and I think Christianity has a coherent basis for disregarding them. Although this is not a mainstream Christian or Catholic view, it seems to me that the Incarnation blows the whole concept of purity with respect to the Divine out of the water; and if the Incarnation wasn’t enough by itself, the Crucifixion caps it.

  4. February 9, 2013 11:23 pm

    Actually, I think that it is essentially the mission of rabbinic Judaism — to make sense of the text. There is both an interpretive tradition and a practical implementation. My point is that all discussion about Temple Law is moot, since there is no Temple.

    The mikvah plays a big role — both in Judaism and (through the rite of baptism) Christianity. It has not lacked for discussion! And, it seems to me, that Western culture is in the midst of vast discussion about gay rights and religion today — so I don’t think that lacks for discussion.

    Now if you argued that the prohibition against shellfish is not receiving enough public discussion, then I’d have to agree.

  5. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    February 9, 2013 11:35 pm

    “My point is that all discussion about Temple Law is moot, since there is no Temple.”

    Yes, that is where the metaphorical sense come in. The temple is done away with, and the presence of God is now Christ in us. He is the high priest for ever after. So the purity laws represent his moral purity. That is what I was taught.

    So, actually, I have no idea why John Knight said that the blemished could eat the bread – it was as if he thought that a disabled person could not present an offering or be a priest today. I really don’t know. The story of Knight’s son was very touching, but the theology not so much.

  6. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    February 10, 2013 12:14 am

    Regarding homosexuality, gay married couples have faded into the background here in Vancouver. It is just a non-issue now in secular society. I could never again attend a church that made this an issue. Shellfish is a problem, however – as are peanuts.

  7. February 10, 2013 6:39 am

    I’m glad to read the comments here of Theophrastus, as they begin to address something I found very troubling in the excerpt from John Piper. It seems to me that a major source of religiously-based anti-Jewish feeling by some Christians comes from their mistaken belief that Jewish reading of the Tanakh is pretty much analogous to the Christian reading, with the main difference being the relationship to what comes next. (Please not I’m NOT saying Piper feels this way—I know nothing about him—but only relating to his words here.) However, in contrast to the two possible Christian modes of interpretation of Leviticus suggested here, the traditional Jewish interpretation is neither metaphorical nor literal, but, as Theophrastus notes, both requiring of further elaboration (the Oral Law) and even then not necessarily observable in our time. For instance, a rabbi is neither the literal nor the metaphorical modern embodiment of a kohen (priest)—and the ritual rules for priests serving in the Temple are not metaphorically descriptive of the desired attributes of religious leaders. I hope I’m not merely being repetitive or obvious here, but I feel like I encounter this misperception so frequently that it bears pointing out.

    Also, Suzanne: isn’t father-daughter incest prohibited by Leviticus 18:17? “Do not uncover the nakedness of a woman and her daughter.” The wording seems to ensure that a man’s opinion of whether a woman is his own biological daughter is not relevant to the prohibition.

  8. February 10, 2013 11:38 am

    @Suzanne, I think I “got” why Knight made that point about receiving the bread. I read it as a distinction between what you can/not do and who you are. I speculate that the scriptural proscription on offering the food, when viewed in conjunction with the scriptural permission to eat the food, frames the requirements for the act of offering as morally neutral, objective requirements, precisely analogous to the requirement that one must have fine motor control in order to write. The scriptural permission to eat the food, something of which one surely must be somehow worthy, implies that the preceding prohibition must be morally neutral. I can imagine some implicit metaphysics in which it is no more possible for a blemished body to approach the altar of the LORD without impurifying it (and thus rendering it non-functional until it is purified) than it is possible for a person who cannot walk to climb stairs.

    @Courtney, I think you’re definitely on to something there. The default Christian expectation about Jewish interpretation of the Shared Scriptures seems to be “exactly like the Christian interpretation (well except of course for the places where they don’t see the obvious references to Jesus, duh).” 😉 But there are really some fundamental differences in the approach to the text. The one that really made me realize this was discovering that Judaism has no doctrine of original sin: I couldn’t imagine how you could read Gen 2 and not get that, because it had been so heavily assumed in my upbringing.

    A more subtle point emerged after I’d been studying with a Jewish friend for a while: she was never as scandalized as I was by the stories that show the patriarchs in a poor light. My default expectation was that the main characters in the Bible must be holy people who we are to imitate: that was unconsciously translated from my understanding of saints. Her understanding was that some, even many, of these stories are in the Bible as teaching stories, cautionary tales, so we will know not to do that.

  9. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    February 10, 2013 2:57 pm


    John Knight wrote the passage that I quoted but it was in Piper’s book. However, I do think that this represents one common Christian approach to these scriptures. But as you say, “the ritual rules for priests serving in the Temple are not metaphorically descriptive of the desired attributes of religious leaders.”

    Regarding incest, my understanding of Lev. 18:17 is that a man may not sleep with a woman (who already has a daughter) and that daughter. So this is perhaps a widow with a grown daughter.

    Jennifer Wright Kunst, in Unprotected Texts, writes “The omission of a direct prohibition against father-daughter incest in Leviticus has troubled many commentators.” Some suggest that it wasn’t mentioned because it was always in the father’s self interest to preserve his daughter’s virginity, so it didn’t have to be mentioned. However, Leviticus 18:6 does say “anyone near of kin”so maybe that is enough. In contrast, the code of Hammurabi and the Hittite laws do prohibit father-daughter incest explicitly. So the laws in Leviticus seem to be less explicit here than the laws of surrounding nations.


    Thanks for your insightful comments. I am bringing up these typical Christian interpretations in order to put them up for questioning, and demonstrate that they are not the only possible way to understand a text. Perhaps I am being lazy in not seeking out a way to read them more constructively. I just want to say “that was then.”


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