Blindness appears to have been quite a common affliction in the ancient Near East. Besides a sizable number of references to it in the Bible, secular writings, such as the Ebers Papyrus from Egypt, frequently refer to the condition, describing several forms of the disease and its symptoms, prescribing eyewashes and naming some of the surgical instruments used.
The standard of cleanliness set by the Law must have made eye diseases less prevalent among the Israelites than among the Egyptian and Arabian peoples; and we cannot assume that the situation in these lands now is an accurate picture of the condition of Israel in Bible times. Today a large percentage of people in the Near East are afflicted with some form of eye trouble and many are blind. Among some of these peoples it is considered “bad luck” to disturb the flies that infest the dried secretion on the eyes, even those of infants. This spreads the most highly infectious eye diseases. The breaking of God’s law concerning sexual morality spreads syphilis and gonorrhea, which diseases can cause blindness and are the source of much congenital blindness, the conjunctiva or mucous membrane of the eyes receiving the infection from the mother at the time of birth.
Israel’s law of retaliation requiring soul for soul, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, not only emphasized the sanctity of life, but also impressed strongly upon the Israelites the need for extraordinary care to avoid doing injury to another and also to be sure that any testimony they presented in court was true and accurate, since the one bearing false testimony would suffer the very punishment he would have brought on an innocent person. (Ex. 21:23, 24; Deut. 19:18-21; Lev. 24:19, 20) If a master caused his slave to lose an eye, the master did not have one of his own eyes put out, but the slave was set free. (Ex. 21:26) While slaves could be required to work and could be beaten if rebellious, yet the master was thereby kept conscious of the need to refrain from being unduly severe.
It was a common practice of the Assyrians and Babylonians to put out the eyes of those whom they defeated in warfare. Blindness was induced by passing a red-hot copper plate before the eyes or by piercing the eyes with spears or hot irons. It may be that at times a dagger or sword was used. Samson was blinded by the Philistines, and King Zedekiah by Nebuchadnezzar. (Judg. 16:21; 2 Ki. 25:7; Jer. 39:7) Nahash, the king of the Ammonites, said that he would accept the surrender of the city of Jabesh in Gilead “on the condition of boring out every right eye of yours, and I must put it as a reproach upon all Israel.” (1 Sam. 11:2) For certain crimes Persian law punished the guilty by blinding.
The Bible records several cases of blindness from senility or old age, where the eyes were not diseased, but “dim” or “set.” Because of it Isaac was led to bestow the blessing on the deserving one, Jacob. High Priest Eli began to lose his vision sometime before his death at the age of ninety-eight years. Jeroboam’s wife schemed to take advantage of the aged prophet Ahijah’s blindness, but Jehovah thwarted the plot. (Gen. 27:1; 1 Sam. 3:2; 4:14-18; 1 Ki. 14:4, 5) However, at the advanced age of 120 years it is reported of Moses that “his eye had not grown dim.”—Deut. 34:7.
Jehovah, who made the eye, can also bring about blindness. (Ex. 4:11) He warned the nation of Israel that if they rejected his statutes and violated his covenant he would bring upon them burning fever, causing the eyes to fail. (Lev. 26:15, 16; Deut. 28:28) He inflicted temporary blindness in the cases of the wicked men of Sodom and the sorcerer Elymas. (Gen. 19:11; Acts 13:11) Saul of Tarsus was blinded by the brilliance of the light when Jesus appeared to him “as if to one born prematurely.” He regained sight when Ananias laid his hands on him and “there fell from his eyes what looked like scales.” (1 Cor. 15:8; Acts 9:3, 8, 9, 12, 17, 18) In a prophetic utterance by the prophet Zechariah, Jehovah points out that the horses of those who come against Jerusalem will be stricken with loss of sight (Zech. 12:4), and that in the day belonging to Jehovah all the peoples that will actually do military service against Jerusalem will experience a scourge in which their very eyes will “rot away in their sockets.”—Zech. 14:1, 12.
The blindness that was brought on the military force of the Syrians at the word of Elisha was evidently mental blindness. If the entire army had been stricken with physical blindness, they would all have had to be led by hand. But the account simply says that Elisha told them: “This is not the way, and this is not the city. Follow me.” On this phenomenon William James in his Principles of Psychology, Volume 1, page 48, states: “A most interesting effect of cortical disorder is mental blindness. This consists not so much in insensibility of optical impressions, as in inability to understand them. Psychologically it is interpretable as loss of associations between optical sensations and what they signify; and any interruption of the paths between the optic centres and the centres for other ideas ought to bring it about.” This was possibly the kind of blindnes removed by Jehovah when the Syrian army reached Samaria.—2 Ki. 6:18-20.
Blindness disqualified a man from serving as a priest at Jehovah’s sanctuary. (Lev. 21:17, 18, 21-23) The sacrifice of an animal that was blind was also unacceptable to Jehovah. (Deut. 15:21; Mal. 1:8) But Jehovah’s law reflected consideration and sympathy for the blind. The one who put an obstacle in the way of a blind man or misled him was cursed. (Lev. 19:14; Deut. 27:18) God’s righteous servant Job said: “Eyes I became to the blind one.” (Job 29:15) Jehovah himself indicates that in time he will do away with blindness.—Isa. 35:5.
When Jesus Christ was on earth, he miraculously restored the sight of many blind persons. (Matt. 11:5; 15:30, 31; 21:14; Luke 7:21, 22) When Jesus was near Jericho he cured blind Bartimaeus and his companion. (Matt. 20:29-34; Mark 10:46-52; Luke 18:35-43) On another occasion he healed two blind men at the same time. (Matt. 9:27-31) Again he cured a demon-possessed man who was both blind and dumb. (Matt. 12:22; compare Luke 11:14.) One man’s sight was restored gradually. This may have been to enable the man so used to being in darkness to accommodate his eyes to the brilliance of sunlight. (Mark 8:22-26) Another man blind from birth, on having his sight restored, became a believer in Jesus. (John 9:1, 35-38) In the latter two cases Jesus used saliva or saliva mixed with clay, but this purported resemblance to folk remedies does not diminish the miraculous aspect of the healings. In the case of the man blind from birth, he was told to go wash in the Pool of Siloam before he received his sight. This was undoubtedly for a test of his faith, just as Naaman was required to bathe in the Jordan River before he was freed from his leprosy.—2 Ki. 5:10-14.
Many times the groping about of the blind serves as a simile of helplessness. (Deut. 28:29; Lam. 4:14; Isa. 59:10; Zeph. 1:17; Luke 6:39) The Jebusites taunted David that their own feeble blind, weak though they were, could defend the fortress of Zion against Israel, so confident were they of the impregnable strength of the citadel.—2 Sam. 5:6, 8.
Miscarriage of justice through judicial corruption was symbolized by blindness and many are the exhortations in the Law against bribery, gifts or prejudice, as such things can blind a judge and prevent the impartial administration of justice. “The bribe blinds clear-sighted men.” (Ex. 23:8) “The bribe blinds the eyes of wise ones.” (Deut. 16:19) A judge, no matter how upright and discerning, may be consciously or even unconsciously affected by a gift from those involved in the case. God’s law thoughtfully considers the blinding effect, not only of a gift, but also of sentiment, as it states: “You must not treat the lowly with partiality, and you must not prefer the person of a great one.” (Lev. 19:15) So, for sentimentality or popularity with the crowd, a judge was not to render his verdict against the rich merely because they were rich.—Ex. 23:2, 3.
The Bible attributes far greater importance to spiritual sight than to the physical. Jesus used the occasion of healing the man blind from birth to point out the reprehensibility of the Pharisees because they professed to be those with spiritual sight and willfully refused to come out of their blind condition. They were like those who loved darkness rather than light. (John 9:39-41; 3:19, 20) The apostle Paul spoke to the Ephesian congregation about having the eyes of their heart enlightened. (Eph. 1:16, 18) Jesus points out that those who profess to be Christians but who are not conscious of their spiritual need are blind and naked, not discerning their pitiful, groping condition. (Rev. 3:17) Just as being in darkness for a long period of time will cause blindness to the natural eyes, the apostle John points out that a Christian who hates his brother is walking aimlessly in a blinding darkness (1 John 2:11), and Peter warns that one not developing Christian fruitages, the highest of which is love, is “blind, shutting his eyes to the light.” (2 Pet. 1:5-9) The source of such darkness and spiritual blindness is Satan the Devil, who, transforming himself into an angel of light, actually is “the god of this system of things” and the god of darkness who has blinded the minds of the unbelievers so that they do not discern the good news about the Christ.—Luke 22:53; 2 Cor. 4:4; 11:14, 15.