Leviticus, defects, and disability

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.

4 thoughts on “Leviticus, defects, and disability

  1. Thanks for these reflections on what we (humans that is) label disability. When you wrote: “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?” I think you are indeed right – “we cannot close the gap.” I would go on to say not that God’s grace can – but that God’s grace has (in Jesus Christ) closed the gap – finally and forever. And, in my experience, I see this in the lives of those that we in the world called disabled.

    My friend Daryl, is in a wheelchair – he cannot walk – he has no feeling below his waist. Yet – he was the only one who when a young man was drowning in a pool here in Indianapolis 20 years ago threw himself out of his wheelchair and into the water and rescued that young man. I was thinking of Jesus saying to his followers who came back rejoicing from all that they had seen when he had sent them out “I saw Satan fall like lightning” – surely Jesus would have said – “I saw Satan fall like lightning in that moment.” I think of Gene who was chairperson of Staff Parish when I came back to Broadway and who is blind. Yet – no one more than Gene has revealed to me that the blind see! In Jesus it has been accomplished. It’s just that we often don’t see it. In Gene – I see Satan fall like lightning. I could go on and on – but I think these things are literally true. I believe that the blind see, the deaf hear, the dead are raised – the poor hear good news. I don’t believe it can happen – I believe it has happened – and that we are called to live as if the gospel were true.

    1. Thank you, Mike. I always appreciate your comments. Those are great stories.

      I’m not sure I fully grasp the realized eschatology that I know informs your ministry. In this realized eschatology, how does Jesus continue working today?

  2. I believe that Jesus continues to work at getting us to recognize that what he said came true in the disciples hearing – actually came true. Jesus feeds us in worship. Jesus feeds us in the person’s we meet. So that we can see. When we meet people with this expectation – we are able to see – to recognize the power and presence of the Word of God all around us. I fail at this a lot. I’m so quick to see the world around me as the world proclaims – rather than as Jesus proclaims, as Jesus made true. I need Jesus to keep pushing me to see – to recognize that my blind eyes see, that my deaf ears hear, that my broken legs can leap for joy, that my mouth can reflect and name the good news to the poor that surrounds us. I need Jesus. Jesus doesn’t need me.

    While I fail a lot – I have stood in crack houses and seen the glory of God that Jesus is constantly revealing. I have stood (as we all have) next to persons in times of deep crisis, misery, guilt, shame and pain and seen the dead raised. I have been awake enough to see the good news in the lives of young men and women who are told they live in “bad” neighborhoods and that they have parents who don’t care and that they need to be fixed. Jesus keeps pushing me to see and name and bless the abundance that is in those moments – so that perhaps, perhaps, perhaps – the sounds that the world makes that names people and situations as lost causes, or people who need to be fixed or rehabilitated – can see that in Jesus they have been.

    George Saunders (a writer I like) used a word to describe our culture these days – he calls it “the brain dead megaphone.” That is, in part, what I feel like there is to work against.

    A Yiddish scholar by the name of Dara Horn tells a story that I keep coming back to in my mind. She tells a story about two children who are abandoned in a forest and “adopted” by seven beggars (each of whom is disabled) who give the children the gift of their disability. When the children grow older they are given to a village and then comes the day when they will marry. Over the seven days of the marriage – the young people are visited by one of the beggars each day and reminded that they have been given this gift. The deaf beggar comes on the second day and says “‘Do you think I’m deaf? I’m not deaf at all. It’s just that it isn’t worth hearing a whole world full of people complaining about what they lack.’ He told them a story of a wealthy country where people believed they were living ‘the good life.’ The country had a garden of riches, of so many sights and sounds and smells that the people there literally lost their senses, spoiled by everything they had already seen and heart and tasted and touched until the deaf beggar taught them how to use their senses again. And he gave the children his gift: a good life.”

    I do not think that Jesus needs me to make these things true. Jesus has made them true. It is his love, his sacrifice, his healing, his forgiveness…not my own that is at work (and thank God for that).

  3. John,

    I respectively disagree with your OT professor. To say that blogging isn’t careful theological reflection ignores a host of good blogs, such as yours, which do reflect on many things thoughtfully.

    It seems as if this professor is one who may still live in the world of print journals and articles in theological tomes. The only major difference is you can find both good and bad theological reflection on the ‘net without peer review. (And even then you may still find decent peer review.)

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