2. And his disciples asked him, saying, Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?
[Who did sin, this man, or his parents?] I. It was a received doctrine in the Jewish schools, that children, according to some wickedness of their parents, were born lame, or crooked, or maimed and defective in some of their parts, &c.; by which they kept parents in awe, lest they should grow remiss and negligent in the performance of some rites which had respect to their being clean, such as washings and purifyings, &c. We have given instances elsewhere.
II. But that the infant should be born lame or blind, or defective in any part, for any sin or fault of his own, seems a riddle indeed.
1. Nor do they solve the matter who fly to that principle of the transmigration of souls, which they would have the Jews tinctured with; at least if we will admit Josephus as a just interpreter and judge of that principle. For thus he:
It is the opinion of the Pharisees that "the souls of all are immortal, and do pass into another body; that is, those of the good only [observe this]; but those of the wicked are punished with eternal torments." So that unless you will say that the soul of some good man passing into the body of this man was the cause of his being born blind (a supposition that every one would cry shame of), you say nothing to the case in hand. If the opinion of the transmigration of souls amongst the Jews prevailed only so far, that they supposed 'the souls of good men only' passed into other bodies, the very subject of the present question is taken away; and all suspicion of any punishment or defect happening to the infant upon the account of transmigration wholly vanisheth, unless you will say it could happen upon a good soul's passing out of the body of a good man.
2. There is a solution attempted by some from the soul's preexistency; which, they would pretend, the Jews had some smatch of, from what they say about those souls which are in Goph, or Guph.
"R. Jose saith, The Son of David will not come till the souls that are in Goph are consummated." The same passage is recited also in Niddah, and Jevamoth, where it is ascribed to R. Asi.
"There is a repository (saith R. Solomon), the name of which is Goph: and from the creation, all the souls that ever were to be born were formed together and there placed."
But there is another Rabbin brought in by another commentator, that supposeth a twofold Goph, and that the souls of the Israelites and of the Gentiles are not in one and the same Goph. Nay further, he conceives that in the days of the Messiah there will be a third Goph, and a new race of souls made.
R. Jose deduceth his opinion from Isaiah 57:16, miserably wresting the words of the prophet to this sense, "My will shall hinder for the souls which I have made." For so Aruch and the commentators explain his mind.
Grant now that what I have quoted might be sufficient confirmation that the Jews did entertain the opinion of the soul's preexistence, yet what concern the preexistence of souls hath with this place, I confess I have not so quick an apprehension as any way to imagine.
III. I would therefore seek to untie this knot some other way.
I. I would have that passage observed which we have in Vajicra Rabba: "And the days draw nigh, in the which thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them," Ecclesiastes 12:1. "Those are the days of the Messiah, wherein there shall be neither merit nor demerit": that is, if I mistake not, wherein neither the good deserts of the parents shall be imputed to the children for their advantage, nor their deserts for their fault and punishment. They are the words of R. Akibah in locum, and they are his application of that passage in Ecclesiastes, and indeed his own invention: but the opinion itself, that there shall be neither merit nor demerit in the days of the Messiah, is what is commonly received amongst the Jews. If so, then let me a little enlarge this question of our Saviour's disciples, by way of paraphrase, to this purpose: "Master, we know that thou art the Messiah, and that these are the days of the Messiah; we have also learned from our schools, that there is no imputation of merit or demerit from the parents in the days of the Messiah; whence then is it that this man is born blind? that in these days of the Messiah he should bring into the world with him some mark and imputation of fault or blame somewhere? What, was it his parents' fault? This seems against the received opinion. It seems therefore that he bears some tokens of his own fault: is it so, or not?"
2. It was a conceit amongst the Jews, that the infant, when formed and quickened in the womb, might behave itself irregularly, and do something that might not be altogether without fault.
In the treatise last mentioned, a woman is brought in complaining in earnest of her child before the judge, that it kicked her unreasonably in the womb. In Midras Coheleth and Midras Ruth, cap. iii. 13, there is a story told of Elisha Ben Abujah, who departed from the faith, and became a horrible apostate; and, amongst other reasons of his apostasy, this is rendered for one:
"There are which say, that his mother, when she was big with child of him, passing through a temple of the Gentiles, smelt something very strong, and they gave to her of what she smelt, and she did eat; and the child in the womb grew hot, and swelled into blisters, as in the womb of a serpent."
In which story his apostasy is supposed as originally rooted and grounded in him in the womb, upon the fault of his mother eating of what had been offered to idols. It is also equally presumed, that an infant may unreasonably and irregularly kick and punch in the womb of its mother beyond the rate of ordinary infants. The infants in the womb of Rebecca may be for an instance; where the Jews indeed absolve Jacob from fault, though ht took Esau by the heel; but will hardly absolve Esau for rising up against his brother Jacob.
"Antoninus asked R. Judah, 'At what time evil affections began to prevail in the man? Whether in the first forming of the foetus in the womb, or at the time of its coming forth?' The Rabbi saith unto him, 'From the time of its first coming.' 'Then,' saith Antoninus, 'it will kick in the mother's womb and rush out.' The Rabbi saith, 'This I learned of Antoninus; and the scripture seems to back it when it saith, Sin lieth at the door.'"
It appears from this dispute, whether true or feigned, that the ancient opinion of the Jews was, that the infant, from its first quickening, had some stain of sin upon it. And that great doctor, R. Judah the Holy, was originally of that opinion himself, but had lightly changed his mind upon so paltry an argument. Nay, they went a little further, not only that the infant might have some stain of sin in the womb, but that it might, in some measure, actually sin, and do that which might render it criminal. To which purpose this passage of the disciples seems to have some relation; "Did this man sin, that he was born blind?" That is, Did he, when his mother carried him in her womb, do any foul or enormous thing that might deserve this severe stroke upon him, that he should bring this blindness with him into the world?
6. When he had thus spoken, he spat on the ground, and made clay of the spittle, and he anointed the eyes of the blind man with the clay,
[He spat on the ground, &c.] I. How far spittle was accounted wholesome for weak eyes, we may learn from this ridiculous tale:
"R. Meir sat, and was teaching in the evening of the sabbath day. There was a woman stood by hearing him preach; after he had done she went home and found her candle gone out. Her husband saith to her, 'Where hast thou been?' 'I have been,' saith she, 'standing and hearing the voice of a preacher.' Her husband saith to her, 'Thou shalt not enter in till thou hast gone and spat in the face of him that taught.' After three weeks, her neighbouring women persuading and heartening her to it, she goes to the chapel. Now the whole matter was already made known to R. Meir. He saith therefore to them, 'Is there ever a woman among you skilled in muttering charms over eyes?' [for he feigned a grievous ailment in his eyes:] The woman said, 'R., I am skilled': 'However,' saith he, 'do you spit seven times upon my eyes, and I shall be healed'; which she did." Gloss: "Whenever they muttered any charms over the eyes, it was necessary that they should spit upon them."
II. It was prohibited amongst them to besmear the eyes with spittle upon the sabbath day upon any medicinal account, although it was esteemed so very wholesome for them.
"They do not squirt wine into the eyes on the sabbath day, but they may wash the eyebrows with it: but as to fasting spittle" [which was esteemed exceedingly wholesome], "it is not lawful to put it so much as upon the eyelids." "One saith, that wine is prohibited so far that it may not be injected into the middle of the eyes; upon the eyebrows it may. Another saith that spittle is forbidden so much as upon the eyelids."
So that in this action of our Saviour's we may observe,
I. That he does not heal this sick man with a word, as he did others; but chooseth to do a thing which was against their canonical observation of the sabbath; designing thereby to make a trial of the man, whether he was so superstitious, that he would not admit such things to be done upon him on the sabbath day. He made an experiment not much unlike this upon the man at Bethesda, as we have before observed.
II. Whiles he mingles spittle with dust, and of that makes a clay to anoint the eyes of the blind man, he thereby avoideth the suspicion of using any kind of charm, and gives rather a demonstration of his own divine power, when he heals by a method contrary to nature; for clay laid upon the eyes, we might believe, should rather put out the eyes of one that sees, than restore sight to one that had been blind. Yea and further, he gave demonstration of the divine authority he himself had over the sabbath, when he heals upon that day by the use of means which had been peculiarly prohibited to be used in it.
The connexion of this chapter with the former is such, that the stories in both seem to have been acted on one and the same day. [Going through the midst of them, and so passed by. And as he passed by, he saw a man which was blind.] If it be so, (which I will not much contend about,) then do they bring the adulterous woman before Christ, yea, and attempt to stone him too, on the sabbath day. Jesus hid himself; or perhaps the sense is, he was hidden; that is, by the multitude that had a favour for him, and compassed him about, lest his enemies should have wreaked their malice and displeasure against him.
7. And said unto him, Go, wash in the pool of Siloam, (which is by interpretation, Sent). He went his way therefore, and washed, and came seeing.
[ Which is by interpretation, Sent.] We have already shewn that the spring of Siloam discharged itself by a double stream into a twofold pool; the Upper pool, which was called the pool of Siloah; and the Lower, which was called the pool of Shelah; Nehemiah 3:15. Now the pool of Siloah, plainly and properly signifies Sent; but Shelah not so, as we have already noted. Probably the evangelist added this parenthesis on purpose to distinguish which of the pools the blind man was sent to wash in; viz. not in the pool Shelah, which signifies fleeces, but in the pool of Siloah, which signifies Sent.
8. The neighbours therefore, and they which before had seen him that he was blind, said, Is not this he that sat and begged?
[That sat and begged.] This may be opposed to another sort of beggars, viz. those that beg from door to door.
The words used by the beggars were generally these:
Vouchsafe something to me: or rather, according to the letter, Deserve something by me; i.e. Acquire something of merit to yourself by the alms you give me.
O you whoever have a tender heart, do yourself good by me.
Look back and see what I have been; look upon me now, and see what I am.
13. They brought to the Pharisees him that aforetime was blind.
[They brought him to the Pharisees.] The Pharisees, in this evangelist, are generally to be understood the Sanhedrim: nor indeed do we find in St. John any mention of the Sadducees at all. Consult John 1:24, 4:1, 8:3, 11:46, &c.
The Pharisees have such a sway amongst the people, that if they should say any thing against the king or high priest, they would be believed. And a little after,
"The Pharisees have given out many rules to the people from the traditions of the fathers which are not written in the laws of Moses: and for that very reason the Sadducees rejected them, saying, They ought to account nothing as law or obligatory but what is delivered by Moses; and what hath no other authority but tradition only ought not to be observed. And hence have arisen questions and mighty controversies; the Sadducees drawing after them the richer sort only, while the multitude followed and adhered to the Pharisees."
Hence we may apprehend the reason why the whole Sanhedrim is sometimes comprehended under the name of the Pharisees; because the common people and the main body of that nation were wholly at the management of the Pharisees, governed by their decrees and laws. But there was once a Sanhedrim that consisted chiefly of the sect of the Sadducees, and what was done then? R. Eliezer Ben Zadok saith, There was a time when they burnt a priest's daughter for whoredom, compassing her about with bundles of young twigs. But the answer is, There was not a Sanhedrim at that time that was well skilled. Rabh Joseph saith, "that Sanhedrim was made up of Sadducees." It is worth our taking notice of this passage.
22. These words spake his parents, because they feared the Jews: for the Jews had agreed already, that if any man did confess that he was Christ, he should be put out of the synagogue.
[He should be put out of the synagogue.] So chapter 16:2: Granting that this is spoken of excommunication, the question may be, Whether it is to be understood of the ordinary excommunication, that is, from this or that synagogue; or the extraordinary, that is, a cutting off from the whole congregation of Israel.
"Whoever is excommunicated by the president of the Sanhedrim is cut off from the whole congregation of Israel": and if so, then much more if it be by the vote of the whole Sanhedrim. And it seems by that speech, they cast him out, verse 34, that word out, was added for such a signification.
But suppose we, it might be understood of the ordinary excommunication; among all the four-and-twenty reasons of excommunication, which should it be for which this was decreed, viz. that "if any man did confess that Jesus was the Christ, he should be put out of the synagogue?" The elders of the Sanhedrim, perhaps, would answer, what upon other occasions is frequently said and done by them, "It is decreed for the necessity of the time."
28. Then they reviled him, and said, Thou art his disciple; but we are Moses' disciples.
[We are Moses' disciples.] The man, as it should seem, had in gentle and persuasive terms asked them, "Will ye also be his disciples?" as if he heartily wished they would. But they as ruggedly, "Be you so: we are Moses' disciples."
"They delivered two disciples of the wise men into the hands of the chief priest" [that they might instruct him about the rites and usages of the day of expiation]; they were of the disciples of Moses. And who are these disciples of Moses? it follows, the very phrase excludes the Sadducees.
The reader may observe, by the way, these disciples of Moses, with what reverence they treat him.
"Moses was angry about three things, and the tradition was accordingly hid from him: I. About the sabbath, Exodus 16:20: while he was angry he forgot to recite to them the traditions about the sabbath. II. About the vessels of metal, Numbers 31:14: while he was angry, he forgot to recite to them the traditions about the vessels of metal. III. About the mourner, Leviticus 10:16: while he was wrath, the tradition was hid from him, which forbade the mourner to eat of the holy things."
Did Moses think it unlawful for the mourner to have eaten of the holy things, when he spake to Eleazar and Ithamar, while they were in the very act of bewailing the death of their two brethren, "Wherefore have ye not eaten the sin offering in the holy place?" Yes, but in his passion he forgot both the tradition and himself too. Excellent disciples indeed! that can thus chastise your great master at pleasure, as a man very hasty, apt to be angry, and of a slender memory! Let him henceforward learn from you to temperate his passions and quicken his memory. You have a memory indeed that have recovered the tradition which he himself had forgot.
34. They answered and said unto him, Thou wast altogether born in sins, and dost thou teach us? And they cast him out.
[And they cast him out.] I shall note something of this kind of phrase at chapter 16:2. Thus doth this man commence the first confessor in the Christian church, as John the Baptist had been the first martyr in it. He suffered excommunication, and that from the whole congregation of Israel, for the name of Christ. It seems something strange that they did not excommunicate Jesus himself: but they were contriving more bloody things against him.