Bible translation and Disability Studies

Bible translation and Disability Studies

Eberhard Werner (werner (a)


Bible translation and Disability Studies, how is that related? At first glance, “disability” in the Bible seems to be within the framework of a discourse that reflects exclusively on the lives of the non-disabled. The living worlds of people with and without disabilities emerge in the biblical text by the authors as interface out of the perspective of the non-disabled. We will not find a life picture of a “handicapped person”, which would allow to make any decision on the question of the physical or mental restriction with respect to the divine reality. The book of Job could be an exception here, if it would not leave the impression that it is a religious doctrine of justification. In particular sections like

Chapter 1 V. 1: In the land of Uz lived a man named Job. This man was blameless and righteous; he feared God and avoided evil. or V. 12 The LORD said to Satan, “All his possessions are in your hands, but your hand is not enough for him!”

or at the end

Chapter 42, 9 And the LORD answered Job, 10 and the LORD turned the fate of Job as he asked for his friends. And the LORD gave Job twice as much as he had. 17 And Job died old and full of life.

we get the impression that disability and illness are divine punishments. Even though the origin is placed on the work of the divine adversary, ultimately the divine causality of punishment and pedagogical means of education remains. Another text, no less difficult to understand in hindsight of Disability Studies, is 2 Samuel 5:6-8:

6 But they said to David, Thou shalt not come in here, but the blind and the lame will drive you away. By that they said that David could not get in there. 7 David conquered the castle of Zion; this is David’s city. 8 And David said in that day, He who smites the Jebusites, and reaches the well, and slays the lame and the blind that hath hated David, shall be captain and chief. Joab, the son of Zeruiah, first ascended and became captain. Therefore one speaks: Do not let blind and lame in the house!

While in the first part of this text (v. 6) one could still speak of sheer discrimination based on social prejudice against visually impaired and physically handicapped people, as also shown in the New Testament parable of the rich host (Luke 14:16-23) , the second part shows an extreme form of Ableismus (hostility on disability). The consequence of the rejection of King David to the afore mentioned group of people leads to a proverb and then to an action. The latter being at least justified in the eyes of the author. How would such a text be understood and interpreted by visually and physically limited persons? The intention of King David was probably to convict the enemies of their own arrogance. From a strategic point of view, this included to demonstrate royal power on the cost of the marginalized. That this happens at the expense of “the marginalized” is incomprehensible under today’s human and martial law and was so probably even back then. But it is laudable and helpful for Disability Studies that this episode is reported unvarnished. The stigmatization, exclusion, and rejection of those with physical limitations is a reality of their life well reflected in this Biblical text. Worse, it is inducted through the intervention of a “chosen” actor acting in divine service (1 Samuel 16). Contentwise, Jerusalem becomes stylized as the center of salvation at the expense of the marginalized The literary antipode narrative is identical with the already mentioned parable of the rich host, whose sumptuous banquet is filled up with the marginalized because of the ignorance of the “normals” (friends, acquaintances). In a certain sense, the spell of 2 Samuel 58 became reality here and was unreflected reported. Unfortunately, the unpleasant sensation remains that it the marginalized are second choice used as a stopgap to avenge the ignorant friends and acquaintances. The text reflects them as rear-employment, second-rate (second choice) and an emergency solutions, as Dorothee Wilhem, handicaped herself , points to the discriminatory and exclusive effect of the text. She asks Who Heals Here Who? And above all: About Biblical Healing Stories and Other Annoyances. (Schiefer-Ferrari 2014:12-14 (Un) disturbed reading).

Popular Bible translations ignore these side effects It is to be expected that a keen spiritual eye on these sensitivities will also influence the choice of words. Highlighting this second choice would reveal the literary approach as an antipode. Allow to make two translational suggestions at this point on 2 Samuel 5:6-7:

6 And the king went with his men to Jerusalem to fight against the Jebusites, the inhabitants of the land. They said to David: You can not come in here, the castle can be guarded even by non-combatants who are free from military service due to their physical condition (FN1). They wanted to put him off. 7 But David took the castle of Zion, which means the city of David. 8 David said on the same day: He who beats the Jebusites and gets to the aqueduct, and beats the non-combatants (see FN1), who were thus rejected by David …! (FN2) Therefore one speaks: A person with a visual or mobility restriction should not enter your house.

Footnote 1: Visually and physically disabled people.

Footnote 2: which are hated by the soul of David  …!

Luke 14: 21-23:

21 The servant came back and told his master. Then the landlord became angry and said to his servant: Then go quickly out into the streets and alleys of the city and bring in at least the poor, the physically impaired, as well as people with limited visuality and mobility. (FN1)

Footnote 1: Crippled and blind and lame.