Review of S. Olyan, Disability in the Hebrew Bible

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 9 (2009) - Review

Saul M. Olyan, Diasability in the Hebrew Bible: Interpreting Mental and Physical Differences (Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008). Pp. xii + 188. Hardcover, US$80.00. ISBN 978-0-521-88807-3.

Like their ancient Near Eastern neighbors, the authors of the Hebrew Bible believed that physical and mental disabilities most often resulted from divine agency. Just as Yahweh's favor often resulted in physical perfection and mental acuteness, ugliness and disability came from Yahweh's disfavor or apathy. Saul Olyan's monograph, Disability in the Hebrew Bible: Interpreting Mental and Physical Differences, argues that biblical disability (Hebrew מוּם) comes not from divine agency, but rather, from societal constructs. Much like concepts of gender and race, disability is an invention used to generate and promote inequality. It creates a binary system in which the privileged, those with perceived “whole” bodies and minds, establish a social structure in which those with “defective” features are marginalized. In fact, several well-meaning biblical prophets imagine a utopian future where nobody suffers from disability, but in so doing, they further isolate their contemporaries classified as disabled.

Olyan reconstructs what the biblical authors viewed as disabling and defective: blindness, lameness, an improperly healed broken limb, limbs of uneven length, a hunch on one's back, the lack of distinction between the iris and the white of one's eye, genital damage (most likely a crushed testicle), and even a missing tooth. These attributes are difficult to qualify, but Olyan claims that most of these defects are “visible to the eye, long lasting or permanent in nature, and characterized by physical dysfunction, and more than a few share asymmetry as a quality.” Previously Mary Douglas claimed that “wholeness and completeness” are characteristic of the holy. Olyan furthers Douglas's argument by examining biblical passages describing the stones used in the altar and temple construction. These stones were required to be “whole” and “complete” and cutting them at the holy site was forbidden. Similarly the priests required to carry out sacred rituals needed to be “whole” and “complete.” Nevertheless, the ritual of male circumcision does not follow this theory, and it remains an exceptional case in the Hebrew Bible. In all other cases, physical mutilation, self-inflicted or accidental, is treated as a disability. Yet, the authors of the Hebrew Bible viewed the uncircumcised as “defective.” This exception highlights how disabilities are social constructs, categories that give a culture its identity.

Related to perceptions of disability, Olyan examines in detail the various physical attributes in the Hebrew Bible which cause individuals to be classified as beautiful or as ugly. Features emblematic of male attractiveness include exceptional height, thick black hair, beards for older men, a ruddy and youthful complexion, plumpness, agility, and strength. For women, attractive features included thick black hair, smooth skin, symmetrically paired body parts (especially the eyes and breasts), and plumpness was favored over skinniness. Women could play an active role in their beautification by applying makeup and wearing ornamental clothes. Other qualities, such as being left-handed, seem to be neutral, neither beautiful nor ugly. Ancient Israelites appear to have adhered to a theory that beauty equaled divine favor, the opposite simplistically captured in a modern expression: “God don't like ugly.” In fact, the same Hebrew word (טוֹב) was used for “good” and “beautiful,” and the opposite word (רַע) for both “bad” and “ugly.” Olyan then explores one notable exception to this rule, as the suffering servant described in Isa 52:13-53:12 is an unattractive man chosen by God to be his servant. The subjectivity of attractiveness is highlighted by the fact that some physical traits cherished by biblical authors, such as a fondness for plumpness and a notion that skinny is ugly, are rejected by modern Western society which generally favors skinniness.

Gender plays an interesting role in biblical notions of disability, as documented by Olyan. Women of child-bearing ages are periodically and routinely marginalized due to menstruation and parturition. Furthermore, biblical authors tended to feminize disabled men.

The monograph's primary drawback is its limited scope. Olyan focuses exclusively on textual representations of disability. Many other areas of the ancient Near Eastern material record could add useful data to this discussion, especially the artistic record depicting the disabled, as well as physical anthropology where skeletal remains might speak volumes on this topic. A further limitation is the narrow corpus of texts in Olyan's research. He limited his study to the Hebrew Bible, some selections from the Qumran library, and a few Mesopotamian texts. Several arguments would have been enhanced with Egyptian literature. For example, Olyan examines the literary motif of beautiful women causing the downfall of righteous men. The Egyptian “Tale of Two Brothers” would have added much to his argument. It was also surprising that the story of the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts 8 was absent from the discussion of Isa 56:3-7's welcoming eunuchs into temple worship.

Olyan's Disability in the Hebrew Bible is a work that is to be commended. His stated goal of making the study of disability in the Hebrew Bible a subject worthy of study has clearly been accomplished.

Michael M. Homan, Xavier University of Louisiana