The Bible is packed with stories of people… children, young people, and adults of all ages. We know that today around one in five children and young people have an additional need or disability of some kind, and many will continue to have these additional needs throughout adulthood as well. If that’s the case now, there are likely to have also been many children and young people throughout the history of the Bible who had additional needs too, maybe even a few surprising ones… Is the Bible inclusive of these children and young people? Can we find them and their stories, and what can they teach us?
Let’s have a look at four children or young people in the Bible who may have displayed characteristics or symptoms that suggest possible additional needs or disabilities… Starting way back at the beginning of the Old Testament…
Isaac (Genesis 24-27)
There are a variety of theories about Isaac and whether he had additional needs or disabilities. It is clear that in later life he was blind, “When Isaac was old, and his eyes were weak so he could no longer see…” (Genesis 27:1a), but there is some thought that Isaac had become blind because he was diabetic. Theories supporting this thought include that Isaac may have prematurely aged, that he needed a constant source of water (his servants were always digging wells), was fond of food, and experienced the loss of his sight.
There are other theories that suggest that Isaac had some kind of lifelong developmental delay or learning disability. Evidence offered points to Isaac being a relatively largely silent figure, of which few achievements are recorded. Born to older parents, as a child he didn’t resist when his father, an old man, was going to sacrifice him (Genesis 22:1-13), later his wife is chosen for him (Genesis 24:1-9) and he lived in his mother’s tent as an adult (Genesis 24:67). Rebecca receives the covenant promise from God about their children, rather than Isaac (Genesis 25:23).
That one of the most well-known characters of the Old Testament, through whom God delivered the great Abrahamic covenant (Genesis 15:4-5), and who was an ancestor of Jesus, might have had additional needs is really significant.
Take-away question: How does the way that Isaac was included and cared for by his family, his community, his people and his God challenge and inspire us to do likewise?
Samson (Judges 13:25 – 14:9)
Now this one is a bit tenuous, I totally acknowledge that! But it’s worth including it, as if Samson did indeed have additional needs then one of the great heroes of the Old Testament could possibly be viewed in a more inclusive way.
The theory put forward by some is that Samson may have been Autistic, and may also have had Epilepsy. The argument for Autism centres around the time that Samson, as a young man possibly still in his teens, went with his parents on a journey to Timnah. One the way there they encountered a lion, which Samson fought and killed. There is a view that some (emphasis on ‘some’) Autistic people can have greater physical strength and a higher pain threshold, while also having an under-developed sense of danger. Was this the case with Samson as he battled with the lion? Sometime later, Samson passed the scene again and found the carcass of the lion, now the home of a swarm of bees. He once again would have endured physical pain to get at the honey and been able to ignore the grossness of the rotting carcass to get at what he wanted. I can imagine my own Autistic son doing just that to get at a sweet treat!
The argument for Epilepsy is two-fold. One, simply that Epilepsy is 30 times more prevalent in Autistic people that neurotypical people. The second hinges on the verse in Judges 13:25 which the King James Version translates as; “And the Spirit of the Lord began to move him at times in the camp of Dan between Zorah and Eshtaol.” Some commentaries speculate that this movement was quite violent, and could have been an epileptic seizure. Whatever the truth, it is intriguing to consider that Samson, so often described by his great deeds of strength, could have had disabilities too.
Take-away question: If Samson did indeed have additional needs, could it change the way we should think about him and the things that he did?
Mephibosheth (2 Samuel 4:4)
We first encounter Mephibosheth as a young boy of five. We read that the same day he learned that his father and grandfather were dead, an accident resulted in him having a physical disability in his feet; “Jonathan son of Saul had a son who was lame in both feet. He was five years old when the news about Saul and Jonathan came from Jezreel. His nurse picked him up and fled, but as she hurried to leave, he fell and became disabled. His name was Mephibosheth.”
In 2 Samuel 9, David enquires if there are any surviving family members of his friend Jonathan. He is informed that there is one, Mephibosheth, “…one of Jonathan’s sons is still alive. He is lame in both feet.” David seemingly ignores Mephibosheth’s disability as irrelevant and invites him back into the royal court, to a place of honour, in memory of his friendship with his father, Jonathan. Mephibosheth thereafter ate at the King’s table regularly. He was welcomed because he was wanted, not because of any influence he had.
Take-away question: How does the way that David welcomed Mephibosheth into his royal court challenge the way we welcome children and young people with additional needs into church? Are they wanted? Do we give them a place of honour?
A boy described as having an evil spirit (Mark 9:14-29)
In Mark’s Gospel we meet a boy who is described as having an evil spirit. Reading the account, it is possible that this boy had Epilepsy, and perhaps other additional needs. His father had asked the disciples to heal the boy, but they had been unable to do so.
The boy is brought before Jesus and promptly fits again. There is some discussion about the belief in Jesus of the father who is rebuked by Jesus for saying “if you can do anything…”, Jesus responding that “Everything is possible for him who believes.” Jesus then heals the boy, and subsequently answers the Disciples’ questions about why they had been unsuccessful in healing the boy themselves; “This kind can come out only by prayer.”
What does this passage teach us? Well, it is a passage often used, incorrectly, to rebuke parents of children with additional needs for their lack of faith… the point wrongly made being that if the parents had more faith, their child would be healed, comparing parents with the father of the boy in this story. Jesus here though shows us that healing depends on the power of God, not the extent of our faith. The disciples had proved powerless and the father’s faith was limited. It is God who decides who will be healed or not, rather than the level of faith or lack of faith of the parents. Jesus explanation about prayer shows that victory over the enemy, of which this healing is shown as an example, is not to be won cheaply but at great cost, going on to teach the disciples about his death and resurrection.
Take-away question: Do we attribute healing or lack of healing to the faith or lack of faith of parents? Or to our own power or lack of power? Or do we accept that it is God’s power that heals, and God alone who chooses who will be healed or not?
There are many other accounts of people in the Bible who may have had additional needs or disabilities; Leah (some sort of eye problem), Jacob (limped), Moses (speech impediment), Saul (depression, possibly bi-polar), and many more. Understanding this helps us to view these Biblical figures as people who, like many of us today, whether children, young people, or adults, often have additional needs, disabilities, or challenges to overcome, but through them we see how God can, and did, use them in quite extraordinary ways!
How do these stories inform, challenge, or shape our own thinking about our own children, or the children and young people we work with?
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