Disability, Part 4: Biblical Metaphors

Brice Laughrey
7 min readSep 2, 2023

This series is inspired by Disability: Living into the Diversity of Christ’s Body by Brian Brock. I’m writing these posts as I read through this book as part of my exploration of disability theology.

Previous Posts

Disability, Part 1
Disability, Part 2
Disability, Part 3

Biblical Metaphors

Biblical metaphors can be helpful in many situations, including for preachers and teachers trying to convey theological ideas. That is, they’re useful the way metaphors are always useful. But, as I’ve written before, metaphors don’t inherently contain truths; rather, they help explain particular positions or ideas. This becomes especially important when we consider metaphors that use disability language. Often, the use of disabilities as metaphors in religious contexts carries negative implications.

The Bible contains many stories that talk about being blind, deaf, lame, maimed, mute, withered, paralyzed, hunched over, or diseased, and some of those passages are metaphors for inadequacy, ignorance, or unrighteousness. It’s worth examining how those metaphors inform our theologies and what they communicate to our congregations and communities.

I wrote in Praying for Healing of Disabilities about how our current conceptions of disabilities don’t always align with the realities of New Testament communities. Similar to how shame seems to be viewed differently, the way they viewed disabilities seems to differ.

Disability in Ancient Israel

Disability in ancient Israel, at least for the communities we see in the New Testament, seems to have been far less manageable than it is today. When we consider the available accommodations for even one kind of disability, such as blindness, we can quickly imagine the lack of accommodations in Jesus’s day. For example, in many cities today, cross walks have audio components for people who are blind, it’s standard for elevators to have braille to label buttons, and there are types of public transportation focused on persons with disabilities. We also have seeing eye dogs, organizations focused on teaching people how to live independently, etc. Being blind, today, is likely a radically different experience than it was 2000 years ago.

This suggests that the overall disposition toward disabilities was different, as well. Does scripture ever talk about persons with disabilities without implying that the disabilities are “negative” characteristics? Are there, for example, any disabled persons in scripture who aren’t trying to be healed or who don’t get healed by someone?

I was able to find two places in the Old Testament where it mentions prophets becoming blind, and both were due to old age: Ahijah ( 1 Kings 14:4) and Eli ( 1 Samuel 3:2, 4:15). Other Biblical characters also experienced blindness due to age, and I submit that such disabilities were perceived as forms of deterioration and largely considered negative. Isaac’s blindness, for example, is significant to the story of Esau and Jacob; it’s precisely because of his blindness that Jacob’s mother is able to deceive him into blessing Jacob rather than Esau ( Genesis 27). Similarly, Jeroboam instructs his wife to deceive Ahijah because he knows Ahijah is blind. In both cases, the author mentions blindness as a specific detriment.

As far as I know, the gospels only mention disabilities when a person is about to be healed, is disenfranchised, or is demon possessed. The lack of non-marginalized disabled persons is telling, and my experience with American Christianity is that we often pick up on that in significant ways.

When Everything Needs To Be Healed

When all of the examples of disabilities imply that disabilities are undesirable, it promotes the idea that disabilities need to be healed. When everything needs to be healed, it supports the idea that those things are “bad.” Our brains then do the work of bridging those two ideas more securely; we start associating disabilities with concepts like illness, mutation, abnormality, etc. Even the term disability centers “ability” (i.e. able-bodiedness).

Coming from a fundamentalist, Protestant background, this doesn’t surprise me. The “non” in non-denominational is central to the identity of many Church of Christ-ers. Conservative Christian identities are often more about what Christians are not than what they are. Who are we? Not those denominations. And, while there was always an apologetic to support whatever doctrine, I find that the strongest motivations are about identity through differentiation. For example, while most adults had scripture references supporting acapella worship, the most passionate responses were often things like “we’re not Baptists” or “that’s what the Catholics do,” etc. Or, drinking/smoking/drugs are things “non-Christians” do. Therefore, we don’t do those things; identity through what we were not. This too often carries over into Christian perceptions of disabilities.

The language and metaphors of Christian scriptures may have been appropriate for when they was written, but brought into current contexts, disability metaphors often prop up antiquated ideas of what constitutes a “proper” human body, centering able-bodied persons in the hierarchy of closeness to divinity. Does that sound like a bit of a leap?

Consider this: when many Christians imagine being with Jesus in the presence of God, what do you think they imagine? Most of the art and literature I’ve come across submits that all illness and disabilities are healed at the resurrection. People are often depicted as being in their physical primes, maybe middle-aged with two hands, two feet, two legs, two arms, two eyes, two ears, a nose, and a mouth; properly proportioned, lean and well-toned, and presenting as distinctly male and female. In other words, for many Christians, to be in the presence of God is to be distinctly able-bodied. Therefore, those who are literally closest to God in many Christians’ theologies are able-bodied persons. That’s not a leap; it’s a slight shuffle forward in mainstream Christian thought.

When everything needs to be healed, the logical conclusion is that able-bodiedness is the best sort of bodily manifestation, and Christians often proof text able-bodied theologies using Biblical disability metaphors. In some places in the New Testament, blindness is used to represent inadequacy, ignorance, or unrighteousness (e.g. Matthew 15:14; 23:16–26). Muteness is associated with demon possessions (e.g. Matthew 12:22; Luke 11:14). Being hunched over is described as being bound by Satan ( Luke 13:10–17). Even New Testament passages that don’t explicitly use disability language as metaphors for sin or captivity still often imply that disabilities need to be healed.

When we take these stories out of their historical contexts, we often stop asking why disabled persons were being healed and start assuming it’s the disabilities that are the problem rather than something else.

We Can Do Better

We can do better than these metaphors in today’s Christianity. In their proper contexts, I think many of the healing passages can emphasize ministering to people’s lived realities and their specific needs. A blind person in Jesus’s day might not have had many options for surviving beside begging for money; healing such a person of their blindness may have been a practical way of addressing that person’s needs. ( John 9)

The healing in John 9 calls into question societal realities and systems of power, as well. Where were the man’s parents? We know they’re alive; they show up later in the chapter not supporting their son. What about all the people who recognize him as “the man who used to sit and beg?” (v.8) This story can easily be used to call out oppressive and marginalizing systems among believers without implying that blindness is something that needs to be healed (the cause of his blindness isn’t any sin committed by him or his parents). If society had worked together to integrate the blind man, he might not have been in need of healing.

At the very least, we can change the metaphors we use or speak more plainly. Is it any harder to say “ignorant” than it is to say “blind?” If the metaphorical use of blind disparages blind persons and communities, why should we use it? If we choose the metaphor, we actually increase our work; we have to somehow compartmentalize the disparaging language of the metaphor from how we understand our blind neighbors. Rather than create dissonance, we ought to be striving to reduce it.

The Obstacle of Inerrancy

For those who subscribe to strict understandings of Biblical inerrancy, this may seem impossible. Doctrines of inerrancy often disregard historical contexts in favor of an assumed timelessness of the words. I believe, however, that this only encourages the marginalization of disabled persons and communities within the church. Without acknowledging the contextual differences between ancient and current societies, we inevitably weaponize scripture and religion against peoples perceived as non-normative.

I’m not saying changing our language will be easy; I’m saying it’s worth doing. A lot of Christian practices are wrapped up in the specific words of the Biblical canon, and many expressions of Christianity intentionally discourage deeper and broader education concerning scripture. Narrower and/or more literal readings of the Bible make for more powerful dogmas, and that means more effective control of congregants. Too many Christian leaders are unwilling to part with their power for the sake of their congregants, and disabled communities are among the many victims of such greed.

It’s worth challenging our understandings of scripture for the sake of the marginalized. It’s worth changing our language and our metaphors. It’s worth the time and the effort it takes to carefully navigate ancient writings in order to make space for living people. I think it’s what Jesus would do if he were ministering today.

If you’re enjoying the content on Breaking Bread Theology or find it helpful, please consider supporting this work. I would love to make this a full-time effort and continue to expand the available content, but that will only be possible with enough support from readers like yourself. I hope that together we can continue to create safe spaces for people to explore faith and theology.

Originally published at http://breakingbreadtheology.com on November 15, 2023.

--

--

Brice Laughrey

Owner of Breaking Bread Theology and co-founder of 1310 Ministries. Currently living and worshiping in Las Vegas, NV.