Tuesday, May 31, 2022

My Ears and the Bible

For several years my hearing ability has grown increasingly worse. In recent months the tinnitus has increased to a crescendo in both ears. Without hearing aids, I am virtually deaf in my right ear, while the loss of hearing in my left ear is severe. I have sought help from otolaryngologists (ENT docs). They have been able to do little, except to puncture my right eardrum to reduce pressure in the right ear, and my hearing loss in the left ear continues to decline. It set me to wondering what ear problems might look like from a biblical perspective.

            I discovered that the biblical writers attributed loss of hearing to a variety of reasons (a great deal of inconsistency exists between biblical writers) and there are several reasons for, and several “cures” of, hearing problems to be found in the Bible.1 One ancient writer (2nd Sam 19:31-40) attributed loss of hearing to age (2nd Sam 19:35) as though it were a natural phenomenon. It was regarded as one of the assorted ills of advanced old age that naturally comes with the territory. Today, we are told that nearly half of those older than 75 have hearing loss. Such information offers me little that I can do about my hearing loss. Today’s docs seem to agree with the author of Second Samuel: my hearing loss will continue to decline.

Another reason for loss of hearing is that God (if such there be) has chosen to make particular people “mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind” (Exod 4:10-11), for reasons known only to the divine mind. In ancient Israel such physical infirmities were believed to have been sent by God.2 Like Job said: should we receive good at God’s hands and not evil? (Job 2:10). It was not until after the Babylonian Captivity (587 BCE) and the Restoration of Israel (539 BCE) to the land that an alternate evil force emerged as a part of the belief of the people.3 Hence, if this is the reason for my loss of hearing, I must assume that I have been cursed by God for some unknown reason and I could never regain my hearing, unless God changed his/her mind.

A third reason for deafness is found in one story in Mark 9:14-29. Jesus exorcized an unclean spirit that had caused muteness and deafness (Mark 9:25; cf. 9:17) in a possessed boy. Matthew (17:14-21), however, regards the boy as an epileptic (17:15), a condition also believed to be caused by demon possession (17:18). Luke (9:37-43a) describes the boy as possessed by an unclean spirit (9:42) but says nothing about deafness. There is a related story in Mark (7:31-37) in which Jesus lays hands on a deaf man who also had a speech impediment. Neither Mark nor Matthew (15:29-31) regard this as an exorcism. In both gospels (Luke omits it), Jesus lays hands on the afflicted person (Mark 7:33-34) and “his ears were opened, and his tongue was released.” This story seems to authorize faith healing as an option for regaining hearing. In my case I presume that I should then seek the services of an exorcist or a popular faith healer.

There may be a fourth option for regaining my hearing. The book of James (5:14-15) recommends the following:

Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.

In some ways this option resembles the story in Mark 7:31-37; it seems to be a kind of faith healing with multiple healers involved. I am not sure that the elders (if we had them) of a Baptist church would have been up to such a miracle.

            Are any of these “cures” for hearing loss reasonable today? Anyone taking advice from the Bible probably should first decide what the present world is like before considering any of the Bible’s ancient recommendations. In my view in 2022 human beings are not manipulated by spirits (either good or bad). We do not protect ourselves by fetishes or prayer (although we may pray), rather we live in a century where genes, ancestry, germs, viruses, bacteria, vaccines, and medical science have more to do with determining health outcomes than do evil spirits.

Unfortunately, however, even rational, intelligent people can be guided into primitive solutions (“fetishes, spirits, or gods”) instead of ones recommended by modern medicine because of a personal phobia or an obsession originating in the mind4 or simply by being misled by some well-meaning but ill-informed minister. It is a good thing to remember that the earth moves around the sun; the sun does not rise every morning.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1This is because the Bible reflects about 1200 years of the passage of time and the demise of many cultures.

2Compare Isa 6:9-10 where God commissions Isaiah to interfere with people’s hearing so that they “will not hear with their ears and understand with their hearts.” A passage quoted in Mark 4:12.

3This story has the trappings of magic: fingers stuck in ears, spitting, a magic utterance, and sighing (Mark 7:33-34).

4Carl G. Jung, Man and his Symbols (Dell, 1964), 31-33.


PAULYR said...

Hello Charles. My Mom recently died at age of 92 (r.i.p.). She suffered hearing loss beginning around the age of 75, shortly after her retirement as a high school science teacher. As she aged, her hearing declined, but fortunately she did not have pain in the ears. Hearing aids or doctors were not able to help my Mom's hearing loss. My Mom was a devout Catholic, but suffered numerous physical maladies in her retirement. For the most part, she was able to be active in community until the age of 91. Her last year was spent confined to bed mostly, but she was still a blessing to family and friends in that her conversations were a positive influence. Even with limited hearing, she could talk on the phone and in person with people. The lesson from this, my Mom's experience, is to refine coping skills. This is hard in the face of pain. My mother had severe pain and discomfort with stomach and bathroom issues because of celiac disease. Yet her faith and prayer life were a comfort to her and fostered peace of mind. I think ritual helps in many bad situations of life, maintaining clear perspective. So I agree with the author of II Sam 19:31ff, which you cite, Charlie, in giving the experience of 80-year-old Barzillai, that health deteriorates in old age and not much improvement is available, even today in year 2022. Barzillai was content with his situation and ready to die. The key to old-age illness is coping, which comes down to mental strength or willpower. [May God have mercy.]

Hedrick jr said...

Occurs to me that hearing loss and balance issues may be related? Seems to me that at the end you are saying that the answer lies in science rather than religion? Or am I misunderstanding your point there? As an aside, I'm still hearing (knock on wood), though probably not so well as I used to...

Anonymous said...

Hi Charlie

"Let anyone with ears to hear, listen." (NRSV: Mark 4:9 Matt 11:15): The parable of the Sower's success, and the observation that John the Baptist was Elijah returned. Listening means that the heart is ready to accept the truth of the communication?

"Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. To everyone who conquers, I will give permission to eat from the tree of life that is in the paradise of God." (NRSV: Rev 2:27, 29)

My wife and I also suffer from hearing loss (mild to moderate). I recommend patient repetition for those who find themselves in such circumstances. Also, recognizing that sometimes one doesn't say something important enough that it has to be heard, can't hurt.

Regarding the scriptures, we can "hear" with sight and insight!

Gene Stecher
Chambersburg, Pa.

PAULYR said...

Charlie, I'm glad you are still hearing. Hearing is important. Yes, hearing and balance are related; hearing loss may lead to danger of falling. I think dealing with infirmities from advanced age is a matter of science and personal resources, which would include faith. So, in my own case as also with my Mom, science and religion would be of use in dealing with disease. I'm 66 years old, by the way. I earned a Master's in Theological Studies from Drew Univ. (a Methodist school) in 1985. Thanks for your blog writing & I've read some of your books.
Paul Rizzuto

Mark Given said...

I’m sorry your hearing has continued to decline, Charlie, but we’re all blessed that you still have your sight and insight. Keep writing.

Charles Hedrick said...

Thank you Paul,
Your mother's ability to cope is a positive example to the rest of us making the same journey.

Charles Hedrick said...

Thanks for the comment Charles,
All I was saying is that the Bible offers little hope for regaining hearing beyond what we already know. I do not find faith healing or exorcism a realistic solution to the problem of hearing loss in today's world.

Charles Hedrick said...

Hi Paul,
Thanks for reading some of the books. I have found that religious faith can either be helpful or harmful. It depends on what one believes.

Charles Hedrick said...

Hi Gene,
I hope your hearing loss continues to hold at mild to moderate or improves (is that out of the questions, do you suppose?). If it gets worse it does affect balance, as was noted above. That has proven to be true in my case.

Charles Hedrick said...

Thanks for the encouragement, Mark!

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for sharing your insight with us...you are a blessing...