A Response to Disability from the Book of Job

by Amanda Judah

 

On October 5, a wide array of spectators filled the Heights Room to hear the annual Pyne Lecture on Ministry with Disabilities. This lecture series has been offered since 1991, and covers a range of physical and mental illnesses, such as HIV, autism, and Alzheimer’s. This year’s presenter was Dr. Andrew Davis, a professor at the School of Theology and Ministry who specializes in the Old Testament. Dr. Davis closely analyzed the book of Job in order to examine their practices surrounding those with disabilities, in a discussion titled Disability and Advocacy in the Book of Job.

Dr. Davis explored how Job treats disabilities in a different manner than the rest of the Bible. Often, disabilities are perceived as signs of “divine disfavor,” especially those that are physically visible. Biblical society tended to shun those with disabilities, instead of treating their differences as part of “valid personhood.” In contrast, Job refuses to be cut off from society, even if it makes others uncomfortable. Although he is afflicted with sores (Job 7:5), he doesn’t hide them. He begs God for an explanation for his suffering, but accepts his physical changes as part of his identity; he doesn’t “ask for a cure.” Dr. Davis further cemented Job’s identity to his disabled status by pointing out that Job’s body was never restored, despite the doubling of all of his possessions in the book’s epilogue.

 

The professor also discussed how Job can be used as a model for the treatment of those who are disabled. Job describes how he “was eyes to the blind and feet to the lame.” (Job 29:15). On the outside it may appear that he was standing in solidarity with these individuals, but Dr. Davis argued that Job merely had “self-serving motives” and wanted to preserve his community standing. Job 29:21-25 suggests Job wanted to avoid being identified with the lower-class members of society. Dr. Davis condemned this attitude, citing Aquinas in order to claim that goodness depends on motivation or intention, not the mere results of an action.

But even as the professor redefined Job as a figure with “exemplary courage and honesty,” he still claimed him as an important model for the Christian life. He suggested, “the Bible is compelling because characters are in morally complex situations,” adding that “problematic passages in Scripture can and should invite us to examine our own lives.” Once we become aware of incongruencies in our thoughts and actions, we can be spurned towards greater advocacy and solidarity. Dr. Davis referenced how this teaching affected his family personally, as he has a son named Peter with Down Syndrome. Although he sometimes struggled with giving Peter enough autonomy to complete tasks, he was aided by the example of his older son Michael, who often insisted on Peter’s ability to be held to the same standard.

 

Throughout his discussion, Dr. Davis connected with his audience by suggesting that Job is “applicable to everyone beyond a context of disability.” The professor shared that many of his theology students found Job’s story led to self-reflection. He encouraged his audience to do the same, whether they knew someone who was disabled or not. He remarked, “most of us are dealing with some brokenness in our lives,” suggesting that one day we would lose our able-bodied status. This exhortation provoked thoughtful discussion and questions around the room, proof that the audience took Dr. Davis’s words to heart.

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