The Lord said to Moses, “Say to Aaron: ‘For the generations to come none of your descendants who has a defect may come near to offer the food of his God. No man who has any defect may come near: no man who is blind or lame, disfigured or deformed; no man with a crippled foot or hand, or who is a hunchback or a dwarf, or who has any eye defect, or who has festering or running sores or damaged testicles. (Lev. 20:16-20, NIV)
If you are interested in disability and theology, reading Leviticus is going to stir up issues. The book dwells at great length on the demands of holiness and the distinction between clean and unclean, holy and unholy, sacred and profane.
In these categories, defects, imperfections, and disabilities are contrary to God’s holiness. Only animals without imperfection can be offered on the altar. Only priests without defects can serve at the altar.
The book does not meditate on the theology of creation. It does not distinguish between those injured and those born with imperfections. The cause has no bearing on the prohibition.
I do not know how Jews of the post-temple period read and interpret these passages. As a Christian, though, I find myself taking note of the fact that all these rules and regulations about sacrifices and priestly conduct are fulfilled in Jesus Christ. He was, in fact, the sacrifice without blemish and the high priest without imperfection. The holiness code of Leviticus, as it pertains to the sacrificial system, was fulfilled once and for all in Jesus Christ.
But for those who are interested in disability, the deeper issue is the labeling of those with disabilities of various kinds as unholy and as a desecrating presence in God’s tabernacle. Leviticus clearly divides us into two categories. The diseased, the damaged, and the disabled are prohibited from God’s presence.
The implication of this is that disability is itself contrary to God.
For those who understand their disabilities as something that is integral to who they are this raises profound questions. If it is not your actions that alienate you from God but your very person, then how can the gap be closed? A man who touches a dead animal or suffers from a temporary skin malady can be cleaned and returned to the ranks of the holy. But the person with a lifelong disability cannot.
Again, I am as a Christian hearing reverberations of Christ. We all, after all, are beset by spiritual damage and disability that we cannot repair by our own efforts. We cannot close the gap. Only God’s grace can. Does that in some way make those who are disabled a visible sign among us of an invisible spiritual truth? Are they in some way a sacramental presence?
These questions are clumsy and inexact. As my Old Testament professor said to me: blogging is not the same as careful theological reflection. But I do wonder if there is some fruit in this direction.
To be honest, it is tempting to brush aside Leviticus and all this talk of blemishes and defects. But I’m not ready to do that. I’m not ready to reduce scripture to a cultural product of an age that thought differently about the sacredness of those with bodies and minds that do not function in the way that most bodies and minds do. I am not ready to adopt a hermeneutic of suspicion. I believe that scripture is a means of grace given to us to make us wise unto salvation. So, I will prayerfully read these chapters in this book and seek the Holy Spirit’s counsel that I may see what I do not see at the moment.