Boow Review: Schipper, Jeremy 2011. Disability & Isaiah’s Suffering Servant

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This work is increasingly noticed in theological circles. The basic exegetical message that the description of the suffering of the Servant of God is an actual rather than an imagined or transmissible disability of a person also has missiological implications. In particular, it calls into question the diaconal-ethical orientation of the church toward people with disabilities.

Jeremy Schipper is a professor of Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) at Temple University in Pennsylvania. He has been involved with disability studies in relation to the Hebrew Bible since 2006. In doing so, he questions the common interpretive practice of interpreting the descriptions of disability or the disabled primarily allegorically. He sees no reason to approach the Hebrew Bible in this way, neither inner-biblically nor in the religious and linguistic comparison with other ancient writings. He is cautious and admits this approach as a possible option, but does not want to leave it as the only or preferred possibility (Conclusion, pp. 110-112). Schipper demonstrates that this approach is especially evident in the interpretations of the Servant of God in Isaiah 53.

In the interpretation of Isaiah he follows the general tradition, which divides Isaiah 53 into two parts: A divine speech or oracle as introduction and conclusion (52:13-15 and 53:11b-12) and as main part a psalm about the servant (53:1-11a). He rejects the theory that the psalm is a later insertion between two divine speeches, and thus that originally there was no description of an impairment, because of the different text-critical findings. He also emphasizes the variety of descriptions of disability and disabled people in the Hebrew Bible, especially in Isaiah (disability imagery).

Disability studies reveal three models of disability perception. The medical model, the social model from the UK, and the cultural model from the USA (pp. 14-20). The former is now declared inadequate. Schipper chooses a practice-based approach to disability. For him, age-related phenomena caused by slow deterioration are not included, but explicitly mentioned infertility (male, female, eunuchs), mobility, visual, hearing and mental limitations are. Ancient texts describe the timely perception of disability, but they do not give sufficient definitions of it.

Schipper cites the inner-biblical spiritual transmissions (metaphors) that play with vocabulary out of the realm of disability, of which Isaiah is not sparing (e.g., Isa 42:19; 56:10). Isaiah 53, however, goes beyond this, as the real physical and mental limitation of a person is described.

Another interpretation defines the servant as “suffering” but not disabled (p. 32; see below). In contrast, the experience of social isolation (Isa 53:3) points to a “real” rejection by otherness or disability. Implications of a religious substitution, such as from the Hittite and Assyrian realms for mentally handicapped persons used in place of the sick king, are not sufficiently evidenced to apply to Isa 53. Schipper discusses theories of a skin disease as proposed by Duhn (pp. 40-42) as well as interpretations that exclude disability as an interpretive option, namely of a servant of God who was injured (pp. 42-45; so, e.g., Whybray), killed (pp. 45-49), recovering (pp. 49-55), or imprisoned (pp. 55-57).

Chapter 3 is devoted to a text-critical analysis of Isaiah 53. In the course of antiquity, according to Schipper, a shift in view from a disabled servant of God to a non-disabled one is evident. Especially the Targum (ancient Aramaic interpretive translations) break away from the image of a disabled servant and speak more of an “anointed” (mšhy) rather than a “deformed” person (mišhat; Isa 52:14; pp. 69-71). In contrast, Jerome in the Vulgate and commentaries uses vocabulary from the realm of disability (p. 71).

The New Testament evidence extends to quotations from Isaiah 53 in the New Testament. Jesus’ healings and miracles form the reference. In addition to Matt 8:17, John 12:28 should also be mentioned, though in both cases disability does not play a role, but Jesus’ rejection despite his healings. Other passages referring to Isaiah 53 also point not to disability but to rejection and suffering. For example, in Lk 22:37, Mk 15:28 – Jesus as an innocent; in Acts 8:32-33 and 1Pt 2:22 – a martyr or in Rom 10:16 and 15:21 – reactions to the Servant of God. This New Testament tendency is likely to support the longstanding shift from understanding disabled people to the suffering servant of God.

In chapter 4, Schipper examines the myriad interpretations of the Servant of God as suffering, real-existent or to be interpreted collectively. At least fifteen historical persons are found in the interpretation (p. 84). The Servant is interpreted early on as Jesus, then again as Messiah (e.g. Justin, 2nd century; pp. 89-91), as king (pp. 91-93) or as prophet (pp. 93-99). Collective interpretations point to Israel, as represented, for example, by Origen in the 3rd century (pp. 99-100), or to suffering Zion (pp. 104-106). To illustrate the predominant tendency toward non-disability, Schipper also lists references to disability in terms of the Messiah or the Servant of God (pp. 85-89; including leprosy or the state of Eunuchs).

It is Schipper’s merit to have shown in brief how a biblical text, here Isaiah 53, can lose an original nuance and subsequently take all kinds of interpretative directions. With regard to disability, this is particularly tragic, since the “glocal” church must actively counteract an inherent paternalistic tendency or exclusion, in order to live up to its “inclusive” effect of being the church for all of all.

Isaiah ; Hebrew Bible ; Disability Studies ; suffering ; theodicy ; healing ; missiology ; theology