BBC - Ouch! (disability) - Features - Moses was disabled

Home > Features > Moses was disabled

Moses was disabled

by Paul Green

17th April 2003

It is difficult to find suitable role models from the pages of history with whom disabled people can identify.
We seem to be almost invisible as agents and agitators of change, except as ciphers where our plight has urged others to do good and charitable deeds: returning crusaders building cripple's hospitals out of guilt and the phenomena of the Leonard Cheshire Homes are two examples that spring to mind.

The Bible, which is history to many, mentions disabled people in passing - but beyond epileptic pig-herder, blind-beggar or man with withered arm, we don't get to learn a lot about them and they don't exactly inspire us. There are, however, some interesting references to disability attached to prominent figures in the Bible, though it would be a judgement call as to whether these references are simply obscure or just not detected by able-bodied historians.

I believe that Moses, one of the most prominent of all Biblical figures, was disabled. Moses, of course, was one of the most influential prophets in Christianity, Judaism and Islam. He introduced the Ten Commandments that have been the basis of morality for the last three thousand years for two-thirds of the planet.

To my mind, there is a lot of evidence to support this revisionist theory and it is to be found from more than one source: Moses, according to tradition, liberated his people from slavery, and on the way invented the slogan 'let my people go'. This slogan happens to be the current cry of today's Disabled Peoples' Movement and DAN's Free Our People Campaign. Moses was also known for having an awesome one-to-one relationship with his god, a pretty impressive faith for someone who was put in a reed basket and set adrift on the Nile as a three-month-old baby. This is a familiar sounding fate for many disabled children, you may be thinking. Can we possibly imagine that he was the first or last baby to be left 'in god's hands' and at the mercy of the river's currents?
Moses was found by the daughter of the Egyptian Pharaoh. She took him to be raised in the royal household. Egyptian society of the day did not tend to discriminate against disabled people, perhaps most obviously because several members of its own royal family were themselves disabled. In fact, more than one Pharaoh had been disabled, and at least one 'king' was a woman - but that's another success story buried away and forgotten. In such a society a favoured disabled person might well have prospered, as indeed Moses did until he began to feel the call of his people and became more aware of their plight.

Falling foul of the Egyptian ruling class, and actually having killed a man, Moses fled Egypt and became a shepherd somewhere in the hills. He settled down to his new life, fell in love (and so on) until one day his god appeared to him as a burning bush. An amazing and poignant vision, a bush that burns but doesn't wither, proving god's pre-eminence over nature - I'd have been on my knees straight away, and I'm not a believer.

God spoke to Moses from the bush, telling him he had been chosen to lead his people to freedom. That's a very big responsibility. The next bit of the conversation goes like this (from Exodus, Chapter 4):
"And Moses said unto the LORD, O my Lord, I am not eloquent, neither heretofore, nor since thou hast spoken unto thy servant: but I am slow of speech, and of a slow tongue.
And the LORD said unto him, Who hath made man's mouth? or who maketh the dumb, or deaf, or the seeing, or the blind? have not I the LORD?
Now therefore go, and I will be with thy mouth, and teach thee what thou shalt say.
And he said, O my Lord, send, I pray thee, by the hand of him whom thou wilt send.
And the anger of the LORD was kindled against Moses, and he said, Is not Aaron the Levite thy brother? I know that he can speak well. And also, behold, he cometh forth to meet thee: and when he seeth thee, he will be glad in his heart.
And thou shalt speak unto him, and put words in his mouth: and I will be with thy mouth, and with his mouth, and will teach you what ye shall do.
And he shall be thy spokesman unto the people: and he shall be, even he shall be to thee instead of a mouth, and thou shalt be to him instead of God.
And thou shalt take this rod in thine hand, wherewith thou shalt do signs."
So what do you make of that ...?

I make much of it, for two reasons. Firstly, Moses describes himself as someone who is speech impaired and his brother is clearly identified as his translator.

"Thou shalt do signs" makes me think that maybe Moses was deaf. There is another reference to this to be found in the Koran, which has the child Moses undergo a test of some kind where he puts a hot coal in his mouth. This story would certainly seem to explain and therefore confirm that he was not by nature an oralist.

As an aside ... whilst looking at these Bible texts again I had an even bigger 'get it' moment. Within the passage are the following words:
"And the LORD said ... who maketh the dumb, or deaf, or the seeing, or the blind? have not I the LORD?"
Doesn't this statement say quite explicitly that god made everybody the way he intended to, and disabled people are not just faulty or broken able-bodied people after all? Hello, religious leaders of the western world and all fundamentalists, genetic scientists, and the world press! Please take note - it's time to have a rethink and accept the fact that we are a varied species, and that your god told you this a long time ago.

I'm almost ready to convert from Odin, who with his one eye and his one hand and his eight-legged horse is, of course, the god of all discerning disabled people.

So, my view is that Moses had a sensory impairment or possibly Cerebral Palsy. I've thrown out other evidence such as the fact that he used a staff, which could indicate he had a limp - it's a nice line, but it's contestable. There are other stated claims for why he was placed in a reed basket and sent down the Nile, but it is perhaps in the attitude of his own people that we see something we can recognise and identify with as disabled people. They seemed to have a great deal of trouble accepting him as their 'chosen' leader right from the start, despite several miracles he was said to have performed.

At that time, the Hebrews - like other tribes in the region - did not believe in one god but in many. It was Moses' vision of a single-god faith that has grown into the world-wide religion it is today ... and he did it all through an interpreter. It cannot have been easy. But I'll finish by saying that I'm not left with a good feeling when I read that upon finding the Promised Land after forty years of searching, Moses was forbidden from entering it. Typical?
The pictures on this page show Moses as he was portrayed in reconstructions featured in the BBC ONE programme Moses, first broadcast in December 2002.

Bookmark with...

What are these?

Live community panel

Our blog is the main place to go for all things Ouch! Find info, comment, articles and great disability content on the web via us.

Mat and Liz
Listen to our regular razor sharp talk show online, or subscribe to it as a podcast. Spread the word: it's where disability and reality almost collide.

More from the BBC

BBC Sport

Disability Sport

All the latest news from the paralympics.

Peter White

In Touch

News and views for people who are blind or partially sighted.

BBC Radio 4

You & Yours

Weekdays 12.40pm. Radio 4's consumer affairs programme.

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.