Book Review: Melcher, Sarah J., Parsons, Mikeal C. & Yong, Amos 2017. The Bible and Disability: A Commentary

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This theological-missiological commentary is aimed at church practice and diakonia (Christian aid work). Here, the genre of biblical commentaries is joined by another specialization, which looks at biblical books of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament from the perspective of disability studies. In twelve contributions, the thirteen authors describe how the biblical texts are received from the perspective of disability studies and what impact the texts might have on the church’s view of disability in general and people with physical or mental limitations.

In the introduction, Sarah J. Melcher reviews the history of Disability Studies in the context of the church and its history of interpreting the biblical texts. The mainstream works on disability studies from the fields of theology (e.g. Eiesland 1994), medical anthropology (Avalos 1995 and 1999) and those concerning the experiences of disabled interpreters (e.g. blindness in Hull 2001) are extensively reviewed.

She herself takes on the two books of Genesis and Exodus. She devotes brief attention to the question of the Imago Dei in relation to human disability. The defining theme running through both books represents female infertility. This “disability” is also, in part, a divine curse (pp. 29, 40; Gen. 20:17-18). Ex 4:11 becomes the key verse: Then said the LORD unto him, Who hath made man’s mouth? Or who makes dumb or deaf, seeing or blind? Not I the LORD? She emphasizes that this passage is written to understand that disability, contrary to the previous interpretation in Genesis, is neither a curse nor a blessing, but a God-given part of human existence (p. 50).

David Tabb Stewart discusses Leviticus through Deuteronomy. Leviticus takes on the societal range of the Hebrews and brings individual disabilities into view. For him, the book of Deuteronomy represents the idealization of the “abled” [non-disabled], Leviticus the legal guide to the ideal, and Exodus the historical guide to the ideal (on the way; p. 85).

Jeremy Schipper, examines the historical books of the “deuteronomy history” following, from Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings books. Joshua and Ruth stand out for him in the conspicuous absence of any reference to disabilities (pp. 96-97). Disability by old age, skin disease, prophetic blinding (2 Kings 6:18-20), and punishment for discrimination against the disabled (e.g., Elisha in verses :23-24) thematically pervade the books of Kings.

Kerry H. Wynn discusses the “historic scriptures.” These include Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther. While Esther has no reference to disability at all, there is a metaphorical transfer of the city of Jerusalem in Ezra and Nehemiah that can be classified as “disabling.” Chronicles, as well as the books of Kings (see above) contain many references to disability. The outstanding narrative around disability, namely that about Jonathan’s paralyzed son Mephi-Bosheth (also Mefiboshet), is absent from Chronicles because, according to Wynn, it has no historical-theological significance (p. 124).

Sarah J. Melcher takes over Job, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. In her text-critical opinion, Proverbs is exclusively written by Abled (p. 163; Prov. 3:1-2). The limitations of human abilities described in Ecclesiastes represent the God-ordained framework of creation (p. 166.). Job offers a particular challenge for disability studies, as suffering, disability, and illness are attributed to divine involvement.

Jennifer Koosed discusses the Psalms, Lamentations, and Song of Songs. In the book of Psalms, creation and the Creator are placed in the context of prediction and theodicy. In doing so, the Creator is both described with a broken body and ideally contrasted with physically broken idols. Images of brokenness via muteness, deafness, blindness, paralysis, and inability to smell (sensory disability) are innumerable.

Other Contributors are: J. Blake Couey Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and Minor Prophets. Candida R. Moss Mark, Matthew. David F. Watson Lucan works. James Clark-Soles Johannine literature. Arthur J. Dewe and Anna C. Miller Pauline literature. Martin Albl Epistle to the Hebrews, Catholic epistles.

This commentary offers a variety of references to ancient views about disabled people. It is critical in many places in its evaluation of linguistic connotations that express metaphorical meaning in terms of disability. The commentators are sensitive to implications that can be inferred from the texts but are not necessarily meant.


Disability Studies ; Bible ; biblical commentary ; commentary ; hermeneutics ; exegesis.