The Bible’s Blind Old Men
Human bodies have always varied widely one from another, and human cultures have marked some of those variations as deviant or disabling. In nature, physical variation occurs with a stubborn disregard for symbolism or characterization, but the same cannot be said for disability in literature—including the Bible. When narratives portray individuals with disabilities, the disability usually conveys some aspect of the person’s character.
Yet the meanings associated with disability are not necessary or fixed; they can change across time and even vary within the same cultural context. Blindness, for example, functions as a key characterizing device in the development of several biblical figures, but with different sets of implications.
In his old age, and with his vision fading, Isaac wants to bless his firstborn son:
בראשׁית כז:א וַיְהִי כִּי זָקֵן יִצְחָק וַתִּכְהֶיןָ עֵינָיו מֵרְאֹת וַיִּקְרָא אֶת־עֵשָׂו בְּנוֹ הַגָּדֹל וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו בְּנִי וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו הִנֵּנִי.
Gen 27:1 When Isaac was old and his eyes were too dim to see, he called his older son Esau and said to him, “My son.” He answered, “Here I am.”
Isaac instructs Esau to hunt some game and make a special meal for him prior to the blessing:
בראשׁית כז:ג וְעַתָּה שָׂא נָא כֵלֶיךָ תֶּלְיְךָ וְקַשְׁתֶּךָ וְצֵא הַשָּׂדֶה וְצוּדָה לִּי צֵידָה. כז:ד וַעֲשֵׂה לִי מַטְעַמִּים כַּאֲשֶׁר אָהַבְתִּי וְהָבִיאָה לִּי וְאֹכֵלָה בַּעֲבוּר תְּבָרֶכְךָ נַפְשִׁי בְּטֶרֶם אָמוּת.
Gen 27:3 “Take your gear, your quiver and bow, and go out into the open and hunt me some game. 27:4 Then prepare a dish for me such as I like, and bring it to me to eat, so that I may give you my innermost blessing before I die.”
The significance of Isaac’s visual impairment is revealed only as Isaac’s plan to bless Esau is overheard and subverted by Rebekah and Jacob, who plot to secure the blessing for Jacob instead. They implicitly assume that Isaac would be unable to differentiate Esau and Jacob by sight, but they must account for his other senses.
To mimic Esau’s meal, Rebekah tells Jacob to bring in two goats from the flock so she can cook them just the way Isaac likes them:
בראשׁית כז:ט לֶךְ נָא אֶל הַצֹּאן וְקַח לִי מִשָּׁם שְׁנֵי גְּדָיֵי עִזִּים טֹבִים וְאֶעֱשֶׂה אֹתָם מַטְעַמִּים לְאָבִיךָ כַּאֲשֶׁר אָהֵב. כז:י וְהֵבֵאתָ לְאָבִיךָ וְאָכָל בַּעֲבֻר אֲשֶׁר יְבָרֶכְךָ לִפְנֵי מוֹתוֹ.
Gen 27:9 Go to the flock and fetch me two choice kids, and I will make of them a dish for your father, such as he likes. 27:10 Then take it to your father to eat, in order that he may bless you before he dies.”
This is perhaps the most likely of their ruses to succeed. Domesticated goat does not taste like hunted game, but the difference may be masked somewhat by its preparation.
The narrative also acknowledges that Isaac might recognize Jacob by means other than sight. It makes allowances for some of his other faculties, but the measures seem shallow and flimsy.
For example, Jacob brings up the possibility that Isaac could differentiate his two sons by touch:
בראשׁית כז:יא וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב אֶל רִבְקָה אִמּוֹ הֵן עֵשָׂו אָחִי אִישׁ שָׂעִר וְאָנֹכִי אִישׁ חָלָק. כז:יב אוּלַי יְמֻשֵּׁנִי אָבִי וְהָיִיתִי בְעֵינָיו כִּמְתַעְתֵּעַ וְהֵבֵאתִי עָלַי קְלָלָה וְלֹא בְרָכָה.
Gen 27:11 Jacob answered his mother Rebekah, “But my brother Esau is a hairy man and I am smooth-skinned. 27:12 If my father touches me, I shall appear to him as a trickster and bring upon myself a curse, not a blessing.”
To address this concern, Rebekah covers Jacob’s hands and neck with the hairy skin of the slaughtered kids and clothes him in Esau’s clothes so that he will even smell like his brother (vv. 15–16).
To put it bluntly, this plan strains credulity. Nothing can make a recently killed goat hide feel like living human skin, no matter how hairy. Further, their preparations to deceive Isaac’s senses of taste, touch, and smell turn out to be insufficient. When Jacob goes in to his father, it becomes clear that they must contend with other faculties as well.
Isaac’s suspicion is roused first by his sense of time:
בראשׁית כז:כ וַיֹּאמֶר יִצְחָק אֶל בְּנוֹ מַה זֶּה מִהַרְתָּ לִמְצֹא בְּנִי וַיֹּאמֶר כִּי הִקְרָה יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לְפָנָי.
Gen 27:20 Isaac said to his son, “How did you succeed so quickly, my son?” And he said, “Because YHWH your God granted me good fortune.”
Not yet satisfied, Isaac seeks further confirmation:
בראשׁית כז:כא וַיֹּאמֶר יִצְחָק אֶל יַעֲקֹב גְּשָׁה נָּא וַאֲמֻשְׁךָ בְּנִי הַאַתָּה זֶה בְּנִי עֵשָׂו אִם לֹא.
Gen 27:21 Isaac said to Jacob, “Come closer that I may feel you, my son—whether you are really my son Esau or not.”
Isaac concludes that he must be feeling Esau’s hairy arms. But Jacob makes no effort to disguise his voice, and Isaac recognizes it:
בראשׁית כז:כב וַיִּגַּשׁ יַעֲקֹב אֶל יִצְחָק אָבִיו וַיְמֻשֵּׁהוּ וַיֹּאמֶר הַקֹּל קוֹל יַעֲקֹב וְהַיָּדַיִם יְדֵי עֵשָׂו. כז:כג וְלֹא הִכִּירוֹ כִּי הָיוּ יָדָיו כִּידֵי עֵשָׂו אָחִיו שְׂעִרֹת וַיְבָרְכֵהוּ.
Gen 27:22 So Jacob drew close to his father Isaac, who felt him and wondered. “The voice is the voice of Jacob, yet the hands are the hands of Esau.” 27:23 He did not recognize him, because his hands were hairy like those of his brother Esau; and so he blessed him.
Even after the first mention of blessing here, Isaac does not seem entirely convinced that it is Jacob before him. Again he asks Jacob if he is truly Esau and again, Jacob answers in the affirmative (v. 24). After eating and drinking, Isaac asks Jacob to come closer and kiss him, and it is the smell of Esau’s clothing that finally convinces Isaac:
בראשׁית כז:כז וַיִּגַּשׁ וַיִּשַּׁק לוֹ וַיָּרַח אֶת רֵיחַ בְּגָדָיו וַיְבָרֲכֵהוּ וַיֹּאמֶר רְאֵה רֵיחַ בְּנִי כְּרֵיחַ שָׂדֶה אֲשֶׁר בֵּרֲכוֹ יְ־הוָה.
Gen 27:27 He went up and kissed him. And he smelled his clothes and he blessed him, saying, “Ah, the smell of my son is like the smell of the fields that YHWH has blessed.
Isaac clearly senses that something is off, but eventually overrides his own suspicions and accedes to give the false Esau his blessing. Jacob’s authority and power over Esau is now assured (vv. 28–29).
Why Did the Plan Work?
Ancient and modern readers alike have puzzled over this text, sensing that the details do not quite add up. Could this thin ruse really have fooled the aged and sightless Isaac? Some have responded by introducing additional elements that help explain the implausible deception. This filling in is evident already in the book of Jubilees (2nd century B.C.E.), a rewritten version of select events from the canonical books of Genesis and Exodus. Jubilees introjects a note into the story that Jacob’s deception did not succeed on its own merits, but by decree of heaven:
Jub 26:17 Jacob came close to his father Isaac. When he touched him he said: 26:18 “The voice is Jacob’s voice, but the forearms are Esau’s forearms.” He did not recognize him because there was a turn of affairs from heaven to distract his mind….
In this retelling, God prevents Isaac from noticing any shortcomings in the plan.
Modern scholars are less drawn to this literal deus ex machina explanation and propose various implicit motivations or character traits to close the story’s plausibility gap. Some argue that Isaac had always intended to give Jacob the greater blessing, and so went along with the deception knowingly while allowing Jacob, Rebekah, and Esau all to believe he had been deceived.
Others propose that Isaac had some kind of cognitive disability in addition to his impaired vision, as evident in the extreme passivity and tractability he exhibits across his lifespan. Think of his acquiescence in the Akedah (Gen 22), for example, and the fact that he is the only patriarch who does not find his own wife (Gen 24). A few scholars have taken this further, suggesting that Isaac is cast as a comic figure, a schlemiel who bumbles his way through life.
The text, however, mentions none of these factors. It presents Isaac’s visual impairment as a sufficient condition for the deception to succeed. Yet the idea that his visual impairment exists alongside—and from the text’s perspective, as part of—a collection of weak and passive character traits cannot be ruled out.
Isaac’s blindness in this episode decreases his agency and increases his vulnerability to deception and manipulation. It serves to characterize him as a weak and ineffectual person, unable to understand what is happening around him or to bring about what he desires. Jacob’s blind blessing of his own grandchildren, however, could not go more differently.
After Migrating to Egypt during the prolonged famine, Jacob (now renamed Israel) reunites with his lost son Joseph and meets his two grandchildren, Manasseh and Ephraim:
בראשׁית מח:ח וַיַּרְא יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת בְּנֵי יוֹסֵף וַיֹּאמֶר מִי אֵלֶּה. מח:ט וַיֹּאמֶר יוֹסֵף אֶל אָבִיו בָּנַי הֵם אֲשֶׁר נָתַן לִי אֱלֹהִים בָּזֶה וַיֹּאמַר קָחֶם נָא אֵלַי וַאֲבָרֲכֵם.
Gen 48:8 Noticing Joseph’s sons, Israel asked, “Who are these?” 48:9 And Joseph said to his father, “They are my sons, whom God has given me here.” “Bring them up to me,” he said, “that I may bless them.”
Israel notices the presence of the two young men, though he is unable to recognize who they are. Like his own father, Israel’s vision has declined with age:
בראשׁית מח:י וְעֵינֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל כָּבְדוּ מִזֹּקֶן לֹא יוּכַל לִרְאוֹת וַיַּגֵּשׁ אֹתָם אֵלָיו וַיִּשַּׁק לָהֶם וַיְחַבֵּק לָהֶם.
Gen 48:10 Now Israel’s eyes had grown heavy with age; he was losing his ability to see. So [Joseph] brought them close to him, and he kissed them and embraced them.
Israel wishes to bless the young men, and asks Joseph to bring them closer.
Israel Is in Full Control
Here we see the different function of visual impairment. No subterfuge or deception is attempted: Joseph intentionally places his sons in the appropriate positions for their traditional blessing: the elder, Manasseh, at Israel’s right hand and the younger, Ephraim, on his left (v. 13).
Unexpectedly, however, Israel crosses his arms to give the greater blessing to the younger son:
בראשׁית מח:יד וַיִּשְׁלַח יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת יְמִינוֹ וַיָּשֶׁת עַל רֹאשׁ אֶפְרַיִם וְהוּא הַצָּעִיר וְאֶת שְׂמֹאלוֹ עַל רֹאשׁ מְנַשֶּׁה שִׂכֵּל אֶת יָדָיו כִּי מְנַשֶּׁה הַבְּכוֹר.
Gen 48:14 But Israel stretched out his right hand and laid it on Ephraim’s head, though he was the younger, and his left hand on Manasseh’s head—thus crossing his hands—although Manasseh was the first-born.
Joseph thinks he has made a mistake and tells his father that his eldest son is on Israel’s right (vv. 17–18), but Israel indicates that he knows what he is doing and has purposefully repositioned his hands to reverse the blessings:
בראשׁית מח:יט וַיְמָאֵן אָבִיו וַיֹּאמֶר יָדַעְתִּי בְנִי יָדַעְתִּי גַּם הוּא יִהְיֶה לְּעָם וְגַם הוּא יִגְדָּל וְאוּלָם אָחִיו הַקָּטֹן יִגְדַּל מִמֶּנּוּ וְזַרְעוֹ יִהְיֶה מְלֹא הַגּוֹיִם.
Gen 48:19 But his father objected, saying, “I know, my son, I know. He too shall become a people, and he too shall be great. Yet his younger brother shall be greater than he, and his offspring shall be plentiful enough for nations.”
Israel’s visual impairment engenders no confusion or vulnerability. Rather, it is the narrative vehicle that reveals his preternatural control over the situation—knowledge and mastery of his immediate environment as well as the far-flung future.
Israel reproduces his own sibling dynamic in the next generation: the younger shall become greater and the elder lesser, although great peoples will descend from both.
Blind with Extraordinary Vision
Just as some readers posited divine inhibition of Isaac’s faculties of perception, some have suggested here that Israel possesses sight beyond human sight—a prophetic gift that reveals to him not only events of the far future but details of his immediate surroundings.
Thus, we find that a very similar visual impairment functions in precisely opposite ways to develop the characters of Isaac and Israel. One is shown to be confused and tractable, the other clear-headed and in control. These two portrayals align with two long-standing tropes of literary blind figures: the blind person as weak and pitiable (or weak and laughable) and the blind seer whose impaired vision is compensated by extraordinary powers.
Two more biblical figures provide further evidence for these tropes.
Though not a wicked or transgressive figure himself, Eli, one of the priests of Shiloh, is defined by his fallibility and ineffectiveness. He is the sort of priest who mistakes Hannah’s earnest distress and supplication for drunkenness (1 Sam 1:12–15). He is the sort of father who passes his position of authority to his sons and does not stop them from abusing that power (2:12–17, 22–25). His sons’ misdeeds are so great that YHWH declares the end of his line and raises up Samuel in his place (2:27–36).
Eli’s visual impairment is first mentioned at the beginning of the story of Samuel’s call:
שׁמואל א ג:ב וַיְהִי בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא וְעֵלִי שֹׁכֵב בִּמְקֹמוֹ וְעֵינָו הֵחֵלּוּ כֵהוֹת לֹא יוּכַל לִרְאוֹת.
1 Sam 3:2 One day, Eli was asleep in his usual place; his eyes had begun to dim and he was losing his ability to see.
Eli’s disability is mentioned again on the day of his death, when the blind and overweight old priest (v. 18) sits by the road awaiting news of battle:
שׁמואל א ד:טו וְעֵלִי בֶּן תִּשְׁעִים וּשְׁמֹנֶה שָׁנָה וְעֵינָיו קָמָה וְלֹא יָכוֹל לִרְאוֹת.
1 Sam 4:15 Now Eli was ninety-eight years old; his eyes stood (still) and he could not see.
When he hears that his sons have both been killed and the Ark of YHWH has been captured, he topples backward in shock and breaks his neck (vv. 17–18). Thus, his family line and the presence of the Ark at Shiloh come to a sudden and simultaneous end.
Eli’s profile is one of feebleness and decline. His own lack of perception parallels the biblical author’s note that divine communication was generally absent in Eli’s day:
שׁמואל א ג:א ...וּדְבַר יְ־הוָה הָיָה יָקָר בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם אֵין חָזוֹן נִפְרָץ.
1 Sam 3:1b In those days the word of YHWH was rare; prophecy was not widespread.
His personal decline tracks the decline of his dynasty and of the Shiloh sanctuary, to which the Ark never returns after the Philistines capture it in battle (1 Sam 4:11).
The prophet Ahijah is also connected with Shiloh, in the time of upheaval and conflict following Solomon’s death. He is the prophet who foretells Jeroboam’s rule over the ten tribes of the northern kingdom (1 Kgs 11:29–39). Many years later Jeroboam seeks another hopeful word from Ahijah regarding his sick son. Rather than going himself, Jeroboam sends his unnamed wife in disguise, so that the prophet will not know the identity of the person seeking his guidance (1 Kgs 14:2).
Yet the disguise is redundant, as Ahijah has lost his vision and could not see her in or out of disguise:
מלכים א יד:ד וַתַּעַשׂ כֵּן אֵשֶׁת יָרָבְעָם וַתָּקָם וַתֵּלֶךְ שִׁלֹה וַתָּבֹא בֵּית אֲחִיָּה וַאֲחִיָּהוּ לֹא יָכֹל לִרְאוֹת כִּי קָמוּ עֵינָיו מִשֵּׂיבוֹ.
1 Kgs 14:4 Jeroboam’s wife did so; she left and went to Shiloh and came to the house of Ahijah. Now Ahijah could not see, for his eyes had stood (still) with age.
His blindness does not matter, however. Before she arrives, YHWH speaks to Ahijah directly, telling him who she is and giving him a prophecy regarding her child:
מלכים א יד:ה וַי־הוָה אָמַר אֶל אֲחִיָּהוּ הִנֵּה אֵשֶׁת יָרָבְעָם בָּאָה לִדְרֹשׁ דָּבָר מֵעִמְּךָ אֶל בְּנָהּ כִּי חֹלֶה הוּא כָּזֹה וְכָזֶה תְּדַבֵּר אֵלֶיהָ וִיהִי כְבֹאָהּ וְהִיא מִתְנַכֵּרָה.
1 Kgs 14:5 But YHWH had said to Ahijah, “Jeroboam’s wife is coming to inquire of you concerning her son, who is sick. Speak to her thus and thus. When she arrives, she will be in disguise.”
Thus, the prophet is able to identify her the moment her foot crosses the threshold:
מלכים א יד:ו וַיְהִי כִשְׁמֹעַ אֲחִיָּהוּ אֶת קוֹל רַגְלֶיהָ בָּאָה בַפֶּתַח וַיֹּאמֶר בֹּאִי אֵשֶׁת יָרָבְעָם לָמָּה זֶּה אַתְּ מִתְנַכֵּרָה וְאָנֹכִי שָׁלוּחַ אֵלַיִךְ קָשָׁה.
1 Kgs 14:6 Ahijah heard the sound of her feet as she came through the door, and he said, “Come in, wife of Jeroboam. Why are you disguised? I have a harsh message for you.”
Even more explicitly than in Jacob/Israel’s case, Ahijah’s capacity for divine communication compensates for his loss of physical sight. His knowledge of his visitor’s identity and reason for coming act as a guarantee on the accuracy of his (negative) prediction regarding her son and her household. Clearly, he is able to know things he cannot see, whether her physical appearance or events in the far future. He is, therefore, the opposite of Eli, whose inability to see parallels a general absence of divine communications.
Literary Versus Real Blindness
In biblical literature, disabilities like blindness are imbued with extra layers of meaning, and they need not have only one meaning. In the cases of Isaac and Eli, sight loss both reveals and represents weakness of character and vulnerability to manipulation. For Israel and Ahijah, it becomes the vessel through which their formidable powers of perception and understanding reveal themselves.
Literary disability is, then, quite different from real life, where disability need not symbolize anything or have any deeper meaning at all. The association of bodies with social or moral valence occurs within specific cultural frameworks, and literary depictions provide an important opportunity to understand those frameworks and to interrogate their impact on the lives of disabled people, even now, outside the text.
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Dr. Eric J. Harvey is a current Fellow of the American Council of Learned Societies and a recent Postdoctoral Fellow of Digital Humanities at Stanford University’s Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis. He holds a Ph.D. in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies from Brandeis. University. He writes on material factors in the transmission of Hebrew Psalms and on blindness across the ancient Near East. He also maintains a blog on blindness, academia, and Bible at www.blindscholar.com.
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