Book review: Esau's Blessing

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Prouser, Ora Horn, Esau’s Blessing: How the Bible embraces those with Special Needs, Teaneck, NJ: Ben Yehuda Press, 2012.

As an able-bodied person, it is easy for me to fall into the trap of seeing disability in the Bible either as something that God has not miraculously cured yet, or more often, of not seeing it at all. We read the tales of Moses, the great leader of the Jewish people, forgetting that he lived with a speech impediment which he felt disqualified him from the job; how did this daily reminder of his weakness inform his leadership? We read the stories of the Patriachs, somehow forgetting that amongst their number were the blind and the lame. Understanding the effects of physical disability upon these characters gives us important insights into their relationship with God, and thus into the character of God. It also gives us a more nuanced understanding of disability—beyond simply the black (abominations and curses of Leviticus) and white (healing narratives).

In Esau’s Blessing, from the Jewish publishing company Ben Yehuda Press, Ora Horn Prouser seeks to deepen our theological understanding of disability. She also attempts to extend this investigation beyond simply those with physical disabilities, and looks for evidence of stories of mental disability within the Hebrew Bible. While any attempt to retroactively diagnose or psychoanalysis literary characters based on fragmentary bibliographical details needs to be tentative and speculative—as Prouser is the first to admit—at the same time this does not stop her from moving smoothly between analysis (“People with ADHD tend to display these behaviours”) to insinuation (“Could it be…?”) to outright assumption. (“Esau’s ADHD…”) While I agree that there is much fruitful value in applying disability as an interpretative lens to illumine our study of the Bible, and I found much about the book inspiring and thought-provoking, I am not quite ready to concede that this approach is viable whether or not the characters actually had the disability—this must be established first, and since it cannot be established with anything like the degree of certainty the author assumes, this tension made me uncomfortable throughout the book. Seeing disability within the Bible—even opening one’s eyes to the possibility of disability within the Bible—certainly does lead, as Prouser argues, to a more sympathetic reading, a more inclusive reading, making visible and normalising the marginalised and discriminated, and allowing us one to see both the work and the image of God within the disabled. But imagining disability where it may not actually be present is no help to anyone… is it?

Accordingly, the book is strongest when investigating those who are positively described as having some kind of physical disability. And yet—some of her diagnoses of mental illness do make sense of some of the Bible’s mysterious moments. With an estimated one in four suffering from mental health problems at some point during their lives, it ought to be highly likely that, amongst the characters in the Bible stories, we would see some with some kind of mental disability, and Prouser’s attempt to make this possibility visible within the Bible is an extremely valuable contribution. However, I wonder if it would not be more reflective of the tentative nature of retroactive diagnosis, and more useful in terms of general applicability, to position mental illness in terms of a continuum, and to see all of the Biblical characters on this spectrum—an obvious application of this would be the character of Naomi, who certainly behaves like someone with depression, and yet it would be more obvious to ascribe this depression to circumstantial rather than clinical factors. Similarly, Samson’s destructive, self-destructive and unempathetic behaviour is made less confusing if we accept the possibility that he may have had a conduct disorder, and God’s role in strengthening, sustaining and enabling Samson in such behaviour requires deep contemplation; but we do not need to necessarily engage in a diagnosis, so much as open our eyes to the possibilities that not everyone in the Bible is mentally “like us.” I believe this is what Prouser is trying to do, and she most certainly succeeds in this—I will never read the Hebrew Bible stories in the same light again—but I found that her rush to a certain diagnosis, probably motivated though it is by attempting to find sympathetic correspondences for the real situations of her readers, detracted from this essential point.

Despite this caveat, I would highly recommend this book as a very readable and sympathetic introduction to the concepts of disability theology, and as an insightful and devotional reflection of the work of God within the lives of the disabled.