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Medicine and the Hebrew Bible

According to the Bible

In modern western society, we are used to a complex system of health care including doctors, clinics, hospitals, and insurance companies. But during the period when the Hebrew Bible was being written, no organized medical system existed in the lands of Israel and Judah. Most illnesses were probably treated at home, as illustrated in stories such as the prophet Elisha’s healing of a child (2Kgs 4:32-36). Physicians existed (the Hebrew word literally means “healer”), but biblical writers mention them rarely and with some disdain. For example, Job compares his so-called friends to “worthless physicians” (Job 13:4), and 2Chr 16:12 implies that Asa erred in turning to doctors. Far more frequently, biblical texts refer to a single true healer—God.

Reading the Hebrew Bible, we see conceptions of health and illness that are quite different from modern scientific understandings. Biblical writers held archaic views of human physiology. For example, they knew nothing about germs and believed that people thought with the heart and felt emotions in the liver. Throughout the ancient Near East, people did not distinguish medicine from religion or what we might call magic. In Mesopotamia and Egypt, people went to exorcists and priests as well as to doctors for treatment, to placate or otherwise render harmless the god, demon, or sorcerer believed to be causing the ailment. Some treatments no doubt had a positive physical effect, but often a treatment’s main effectiveness would have resulted from the patient’s belief in its power. To a certain extent, the same is true today, as research into placebos indicates.

Once in a while, the Bible provides hints of what we would consider medical treatments—for example, bandaging injuries or applying ointment to wounds—but only in the context of divine-human relations. The prophet Isaiah treats King Hezekiah’s life-threatening illness by pressing figs on his sores (the story is told twice, in 2Kgs 20:1-7 and in Isa 38:1-21). But the Bible makes it clear that Hezekiah owes his recovery to God: the Lord refers to Hezekiah’s prayers, not to Isaiah’s action, when he promises Hezekiah 15 more years of life. Miracle cures by the prophets Elijah and Elisha also combine physical actions with prayer. Although the prophets’ acts in 1Kgs 17:17-22 and especially 2Kgs 4:32-35 resemble artificial respiration, they may simply be parts of a religious ritual.

Some biblical texts resembling medical diagnoses or treatments actually provide instructions for religious purification by priests. For instance, writers of parts of Leviticus and Numbers believed that certain conditions or behaviors, such as touching a dead person, giving birth, or developing a scaly rash (inaccurately translated as “leprosy”), caused impurity. The presence of impurity within the Israelite settlement was thought to provoke divine wrath, endangering the entire community. The book of Leviticus directs priests to prescribe sacrifices or ritual washing and have affected individuals live outside the settlement until the condition has changed. We do not know how closely these directions were followed, however.

Overall, the Hebrew Bible provides glimpses of a world in which ailments were often treated at home by family members, prophets, or healers, using a combination of prayer and other remedies. It is possible that certain remedies had genuine medicinal effects. In general, however, the Hebrew Bible presents the view that medical treatments were little more than a distraction and that the real healing power rested with God. With the influence of Greek philosophy and science, this view gradually changed, so that in the apocryphal book of Ben Sira (200-180 B.C.E.), physicians were portrayed as God’s creations whose skills should be valued. Nonetheless, the older view persisted into New Testament times, as shown by Mark 5:25-26. According to this perspective, the sick should seek divine forgiveness and healing.

  • Marian Broida

    Marian Broida is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Religion at Gustavus Adolphus College. Her research focuses on theology in the Hebrew Bible in comparison to ancient Near Eastern and modern Jewish traditions. She is the author of Forestalling Doom: “Apotropaic Intercession” in the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East (Alter Orient und Altes Testament 417; Ugarit-Verlag, 2014).