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In antiquity, disability was not simply a biological reality. It affected an individual’s social status and financial well-being.

David’s Charity Toward Mephibosheth (2 Sam 9:5–8), detail of a manuscript illumination in MS M.638, fol. 40v, ca. 1244, 390 x 300 mm. Courtesy The Morgan Library & Museum.

Who was Mephibosheth?

When Saul and Jonathan were killed, King David promised to show loving kindness to their descendants (1 Sam 20:15). This included Mephibosheth (also known as Meribaal), Saul’s grandson and Jonathan’s son. David seeks out Jonathan’s son, takes him into his household, and tells him that he will eat at his table daily (2 Sam 9:7, 11, 13). Mephibosheth is given the land that belonged to Saul, and one of Saul’s servants, Ziba, becomes Mephibosheth’s servant (2 Sam 9).

The honor David shows Mephibosheth is striking for two reasons: First, Mephibosheth is the grandson of a fallen enemy. In antiquity, leaders often killed the descendants of their defeated enemies in order to secure their own power. Second, Mephibosheth had a disability of the feet. Living with a disability could be especially challenging in antiquity. Without family support, individuals with disabilities could have trouble supporting themselves and were sometimes shunned by their communities. The story of Mephibosheth reflects this reality in some ways but also challenges the presupposition that individuals with disabilities in antiquity were necessarily dependent on others for survival and that they lacked agency. When readers only focus on a grateful and dependent Mephibosheth, they can also overlook that David’s actions may have resulted from a desire to keep Saul’s descendants under a watchful eye.

What happened to Mephibosheth’s feet?

It is difficult to find suitable words to describe Mephibosheth’s disability. Most translations say that Mephibosheth was “crippled,” but the Hebrew literally states that Mephibosheth was “afflicted/struck” (Hebrew: nakeh, related to the verb “to smite”) in his feet. This adjective is only used four times in the Hebrew Bible (2 Sam 4:4; 9:3; Isa 66:2; Ps 35:15) and is somewhat ambiguous. Elsewhere, in the narrative, Mephibosheth’s disability is described by a different Hebrew term (pasah), which is usually translated as “lame” and suggests a limping motion (2 Sam 4:4; 9:13). The sense is that Mephibosheth had a disability that impacted his mobility in some way.

Mephibosheth was not born with this disability. In 2 Sam 4:4, we hear how the disability came about. When Mephibosheth was five years old, Saul and Jonathan were killed. Upon hearing the news, Mephibosheth’s nurse lifted him up as she tried to flee. However, she dropped the boy due to her haste and damaged his feet. In this passage, the first thing we learn is Mephibosheth’s lineage, then his disability, and finally his name. Mephibosheth’s lineage remains his primary identifier and the key to his future status in the kingdom.

What impact does his disability have on Mephibosheth?

Some interpreters of the Bible think that Mephibosheth’s disability makes him helpless and dependent on David and his servants. They suggest that Mephibosheth must have been incredibly grateful and thus loyal to King David for his kindness and provision. The text, however, never states that Mephibosheth was helpless or even that his damaged feet reduced any of his functioning. Nor does it state that Mephibosheth was grateful for David’s attention. Mephibosheth was a royal figure. With the amount of land given to him, he would have needed assistance to work the land regardless of whether he had reduced mobility, and he would have been given servants because of his station. We therefore do not know the impact that Mephibosheth’s “afflicted feet” had on him: could Mephibosheth walk sometimes, always, never? Could he walk but not run? Did his feet merely look unusual? We do not know.

We do know, however, that Mephibosheth’s disability remained noteworthy. Several years after coming under David’s care, Mephibosheth runs into a conflict with David, and David questions whether Mephibosheth is loyal to him or seeks to reestablish the Saulide dynasty. David had gone off to battle, and he expects to see Mephibosheth but is instead greeted by Ziba, Mephibosheth’s servant. Ziba tells David that Mephibosheth remained in Jerusalem in order to seize the throne (2 Sam 16:1–3). Mephibosheth gives a different account, stating that Ziba took the donkey that he needed to ride upon to meet David. Although Mephibosheth does not state that his disability necessitated the donkey, he is careful to mention the fact that he is “lame” (2 Sam 19:24–30). Who David believes is unclear, but he does give half of Mephibosheth’s land to Ziba. Approaching Mephibosheth without linking his disability to dependency and loyalty provokes interesting questions. How did Mephibosheth feel about being brought before David? Is David courteous or controlling? Does Ziba exploit Mephibosheth because he is “lame,” or does Mephibosheth exploit a label as an excuse for not traveling out to David? In antiquity, disability was not simply a biological reality. It affected an individual’s social status and financial well-being. The various actors in this story appear to recognize this and may be using that fact to their own ends.

  • Jones-Kirsty

    Kirsty L. Jones is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Ashland University (Ohio) who works on disability, madness, and the senses in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. She is the author of “Home but Not Healed: How the Sensory Profiles of Prophetic Utopian Visions Influence Presentations of Disability,” in Sounding Sensory Profiles in Antiquity (SBL Press, 2019); “Three Blind Vices? Vision and Blindness in the Samson Cycle” (Biblical Interpretation 28 [2020]); and “Sensing the Unknowable: Sensing Revelation, Relationship, and Response in Psalm 139” (Journal for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies 4.1 [2022]).