Priesthood and Disability in the OT

This is the first contribution to the new series, “Everyday Ecumenism.” This collaborative project will be a compilation of contributions from women and men seeking to engage theology from an ecumenical perspective for the benefit of the Church.

The topic of disability has recently opened itself in Biblical scholarship and theological studies. The conversation stems from a larger societal movement concerning both the personhood of the disabled and their role in society. Since the topic is fairly new, however, the reach of scholarship has just begun to bring the discussion into the ethical dialogues. In the world at large, ethical treatment and consideration of the disabled is lacking. The United States suffers from underfunded and understaffed care facilities, largely run on unethical and questionable models of caregiving. In the United Kingdom parliamentary debates rage in regard to Down’s Syndrome, which has almost been “eradicated.”[1] Thus, the caregiving quality and personal value of those with disabilities is a needed dialogue.

            The alternative to maltreatment and devaluing of the disabled is primarily the Church. In particular, such societal protections and values of the disabled necessary for an alternative stem from the Old Testament’s specific stipulations of the priesthood (Leviticus 21:16-24). The Levitical priestly considerations not only provide a contrasting value for the disabled from that of surrounding societies in the ANE, but also provide a framework for how the modern church can integrate and care for the disabled today. By exploring these priesthood laws of disability, new perspectives on religious treatment of the disabled and integration should become clear.


            One of the more difficult and perplexing passages of the Old Testament in the conversation of disability is Leviticus 21:16-24. The entire chapter is dedicated to the regulations of priestly duty and holiness. Derek Tidball clarifies the priestly role and holiness by explaining, “one of the major responsibilities of the priests was to distinguish between these categories [holy, clean, etc.].”[2] Holiness indicated the consecration of an object or person, while cleanliness seems primarily concerned with the state of things.[3] The exclusions found in the text include regulations about where priests can go (v.12), who they can marry (v.7), and general hygiene rules (v.5). Verses 16-24 contain the only exclusion of a people group, those with disabilities such as blindness, lameness, deformities of limbs, and other defects, from preforming offerings and entering the holiest place. For the modern reader these regulations seem discriminatory.

            Some scholars consign these seemingly discriminatory regulations to the idea of holiness: that the disabilities were simply seen as unholy. Tidball argues that “like the sacrificial victim itself, only perfection could be brought so close to the presence of a perfect God.”[4] However, there seem to be fundamental flaws in Tidball’s placing the lack of holiness on the person with disability. First, Tidball’s reading of the text seems to be limited to a presuppositional ideal image. As Kerry H. Wynn argues, this “normate reading” of ancient Yahwist texts assigns categories and meanings with modern social norms.[5] Tidball makes an error in assuming that the text’s regulations concerning the profaning of the sanctuary indicate a lack of holiness altogether in those with disabilities, and this reasoning ignores the text’s indication otherwise. The beginning of the discourse on disability regulations prevents the disabled from offering the bread of God (v.17), but it does not disqualify the disabled from the priesthood as a whole. As Sarah J. Melcher notes, physical standards are fundamentally different than holiness since “the writers of the Priestly Torah never refer to a person as holy unless that person has been consecrated to priestly service.”[6] Thus, the exclusion from certain acts within the priestly role does not equate to a lack holiness on the part of the disabled individual.

            From what are the disabled being excluded? Melcher argues that “the primary intention of Lev. 21:16-24 is to prohibit a priest from officiating in the sacrificial cult…”[7] Melcher rightly acknowledges that the disabled person is not disqualified from the priesthood, and that the only major prohibition is the officiating of offerings. The regulation is not primarily concerned with God’s presence as a whole, but rather the action of offering itself. Neither does this exclusion mean that the disabled individual is ritually impure, as v.22 explains that the priest is able to eat of the priestly bread. Amos Yong further clarifies that “contemporary disability readings would obviously want to note that this text doesn’t exclude people with disabilities as a whole from their priestly vocation.”[8]

            Yong, however, continues by noting that the main issue becomes the idea of profaning the sanctuary (v.23). Melcher acknowledges that the profaning is “a very serious violation,” because this act puts both the disabled individual and the sacrifice at risk.[9] Tidball argues that these regulations indicate that the body signifies “the totality of the person.”[10] In this interpretation, the disability becomes a symbolic model for the modern reader to understand spiritual impurities and defects. This approach to the regulatory texts once again fails to provide an adequate answer for the disabled reader concerning the exclusive nature of the regulations, perpetuating a stigmatizing view of the disablement and failing to give proper room to the disabled reactions to the text.

            Two major interpretative options thus present themselves to the modern reader.[11] The first, presented by Yong, is a Christological reading. This interpretation first presents the idea of Christ being the perfect High Priest, alleviating the restrictions placed on the disabled individuals and indicting “neither disabilities nor people who have them.”[12] In order to prevent further stigmatization in this interpretation, Yong argues that Christ’s crucifixion fulfills the priestly function with a disabled and wounded body, thus alleviating the disabled reader from alienation.[13]

            A second interpretive approach is to allow for the tension of the text and a deconstruction of the stigmatization in the regulative codes. This approach does not “de-sacralize” the text but rather interprets the regulations through the larger paradigm of Leviticus 19:14: “You shall not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind, but you shall fear your God, I am the Lord.”[14] Using this passage paradigmatically, one can begin to read the text within the larger ethical context of Leviticus. A paradigmatic cultural comparison of the Levitical ethics to that of Mesopotamian treatments of disablement allows for an expanded attempt to draw ethical conclusions in the modern context.


            Mesopotamian ethics were rooted in mythological understandings of creation narratives. According to Neal H. Walls, the Mesopotamian creation myth included the idea that humanity’s purpose was primarily labor and alleviation of labor from the gods.[15] In said mythologies, sometimes the gods created disabilities in order to prevent the overpopulation of humanity. In Mesopotamian social contexts, families bore most of the responsibility of caring for those with certain disabilities and were excluded from most temple service.[16] Thus, the value of the disabled was consigned mostly to productivity. The first distinction between the Yahwistic regulations and the Mesopotamian practices lies in the idea of productivity. The Levitical laws seem to centralize care within the temple context, as indicated in the role of disabled priests.

            It is worth noting how Mesopotamian societies remedied disabilities. Walls argues that infanticide and euthanasia were rare, but still occurred. He provides the first example, from the diagnostic handbook (sakikku) which discusses a certain ailment (considered to be Werdnig-Hoffman Disease) resulting in the family throwing the child alive into a river.[17] Similar texts point to the practice of live burial of infants with similar syndromes. The second clear distinction between the Yahwistic regulations on disability and some of the Mesopotamian ethics is the practice (however rare) of infanticide. No such practices are known to have been allowed in the Yahwistic stipulations, thus the value of the disabled individual is not consigned to their productivity.

            Hector Avalos, in his analysis of healing liturgies in the ANE, explains that the framework for disability was largely influenced by the contrast between polytheistic and monolatrous drives. The Mesopotamian treatment of disability was largely centered in the home (which valued productivity) in contrast to the temple centrality of the Yahwistic practice. Here, Avalos fails to draw from the inclusion seen in Lev.21. Rightly, he argues that the temple centrality prevented direct treatment for some of the disabled, but this ignores the larger provision of temple inclusion.[18] The disabled individual is provided with food (holy food at that), sacred duties in the temple, and societal protection. Edgar Kellenberger notes that “the temples had the greatest economic power” (behind the royal palace of the ANE), a dynamic certainly necessary to acknowledge in order to see the importance of disabled inclusion in these contexts.[19] Though Mesopotamian treatment of the disabled is varied, the Yahwistic inclusion of the disabled into the very priesthood of the temple displays an integrative model ahead of its time.


            The modern conversation surrounding the place of the disabled in the larger society is not new to the human experience. The Yahwistic provision for those who are disabled, regardless of productive level is in direct contrast to the Mesopotamian ethic. Driven by the Genesis narrative of creation and the paradigm of Leviticus 19, cultic practices and regulations not only value the disabled with provision (shelter, food, etc.) but secure them socially by enabling disabled Levites to be consecrated priests. Among these many social provisions is the eating of the showbread and the direct route to sanctification (v.15), as well as a restored dignity and level of autonomy seemingly absent from the Mesopotamian ethic.

            Dominant within the modern conversation surrounding disability seems to be an exaggerated version of the Mesopotamian ethos, regulating stigma and social position of the disabled to a larger myth of productivity and economic stability. As previously noted, current so-called “eradication” efforts of Down’s Syndrome in Europe are contingent on the idea that abortion will not only ease the suffering of the child but lift the potential economic suffering of the family. Due to the larger bifurcation of the disabled individual between emotional capacity and rational, social provision and participation of the disabled seems low (especially if death is seen as a better option). It seems that a challenging, yet holistic approach is the alternative of the church. In parallel with the Levitical model of disabled priesthood, the church not only could integrate the disabled into the church but potentially ordain or allow clerical participation. Though a case-by-case model, the idea of “sacred disability” upholds the dignity of the disabled but also provides a “liberating power” from the world’s conscriptions of value to wealth and productivity, a power found in the friendship of the church.[20] Using the model of close friendship, churches not only can help carry the burdens (financial, physical, spiritual) of those with disabilities but also further integrate them within the very tapestry woven in the Body. What would it look like if the Eucharist was administered by those with disabilities? In similar fashion to the Levitical priesthood, what does it tell us about God? In the United States, where many churches have separate services for those with disabilities, what would it communicate to the country as a whole to have fully integrative services? The provision, societal protection, and sacred participation found in the Israelite temple can be mirrored by the modern church, in which participation in the liturgies and practices provides the window of provision and dignity. Said participation also provides representation not only within the congregation but even in the clergy. The hardships faced by those who are disabled are hardships that the church should take up as its own, working and living alongside the afflicted in both provisional and participatory ways.

Cody Bivins holds a B.A. in Biblical Studies & Biblical Languages from Evangel University and is currently pursuing an M.A. in Historical Theology from Wheaton Graduate College. His areas of interest include philosophical theology, theological ethics, political theology, and theology of disability. Cody’s work is driven by a desire for the Church to live Incarnationally and to see others love their neighbors as themselves. 

[1]Alison, Gee.

[2] Derek Tiball, The Message of Leviticus (Downer’s Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2005), 27.

[3] Ibid, 27.

[4] Ibid, 265.

[5] Kerry H. Wynn, ““The Normate Hermeneutic and Interpretations of Disability Within the Yahwistic Narratives”  in This Abled Body, ed. Hector Avalos, Sarah J. Melcher, and Jeremy Schipper (Atlanta: SBL, 2007), 92.

[6] Sarah J. Melcher, “Visualizing the Perfect Cult: The Priestly Rationale for Exclusion” in Human Disability and the Service of God, ed. Nancy L. Eisland and Don E. Saliers (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998), 57.

[7] Ibid, 65

[8] Amos Yong, The Bible, Disability, and The Church: A New Vision of the People of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), 19.

[9] Melcher, ”Visualizing the Perfect Cult,”  66.

[10] Tidball, The Message of Leviticus, 265,

[11] It should be noted that neither option totally alleviates the tension in the text by eliminating it completely.

[12] Yong, The Bible, Disability, and The Church, 26.

[13] Yong, The Bible, Disability, and The Church, 29.

[14] Melcher, “Visualizing the Perfect Cult,” 69.

[15] Neal H. Walls, “The Origins of the Disabled Body: Disability in Ancient Mesopotamia” in This Abled Body: Rethinking Disabilities in Biblical Studies, ed. Hector Avalos, Sarah J. Melcher, and Jeremy Schipper (Atlanta: SBL, 2007), 16.

[16] Walls, “The Origins of the Disabled Body,” 16.

[17] Ibid, 21.

[18] Avalos, “Disability and Liturgy”, 41.

[19] Edgar Kellenberger, “Children and Adults with intellectual Disability in Antiquity and Modernity: Toward a Biblical and Sociological Model,” Cross Currents 63 no. 4 (2013), 460.

[20] John Swinton, Resurrecting the Person: Friendship and the Care of People with Mental Health Problems (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000), 139.

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