Diseases of the Bible
DISEASES OF THE BIBLE (חֳלִי, H2716, מַחֲלָה, H4701, Gr. νόσος, G3798, disease, illness).
A disease is a definite entity of sickness of part or all of the body, with a characteristic group of symptoms.
For a brief description of the development of medical care to cope with diseases in Biblical times, see Physician.
It is likely that the Hebrews were subject to the same diseases that are prevalent in the semitropical climate of the mid-East today. However, in many cases the Bible only mentions symptoms, such as fever, hemorrhage, discharge or itch, and one can only surmise what the disease entity was.
Perhaps in this discussion of the diseases of the Bible and their symptoms, it will be most helpful if they are listed in alphabetical order and then briefly described.
Alcoholism. Wine was a very common drink in Biblical days, much as coffee is now. This was good in a country like Israel. Dysentery of several kinds was endemic and drinking water easily contaminated. Wine was a safe drink because of its alcoholic content. The Bible speaks favorably of wine in several places. When Isaac gave Jacob his blessing (
Some scholars seek to show that the wine was really only grape juice. This is improbable, since grape juice would quickly spoil with temperature and living conditions as they were in Biblical days. Wine was definitely wine as we know it today, and it was a good thing for the people of that day.
However, it is also true that some Hebrews used wine to excess and got themselves and others in trouble. The Bible repeatedly speaks favorably of wine, but warns frequently and emphatically against its excessive use.
There seems to be a strange chemistry in the bodies of certain people that produces a strong craving for alcohol. They start drinking it in normal manner with their food, or socially, but are unable to control themselves and go on to excess. Beer and whiskey were prob. unknown to the Jews, but excessive wine drinking can do just as much damage as other forms of alcohol intake. A true wino is a sad looking specimen of humanity, and is on his way to committing suicide through destruction of his brain, liver and other organs.
In modern times alcoholism is looked upon as a disease, and is treated as such. In Biblical days it was considered a moral problem. Chronic alcoholism is an amazingly stubborn ailment. Persons who seem to have recovered from it show relapses after months or years in seventy-five percent of such cases. Christian faith is of enormous help. Several chronic alcoholics have been instantaneously cured of alcoholism by simply accepting Jesus as their Savior and Lord. Undoubtedly there were cases like that in the old days when alcoholics returned to sincere Jehovah worship. Medication, counseling, institutional training, and Alcoholics Anonymous are valuable, but none are as effective as that mysterious experience known as “rebirth.”
Atrophy. Job speaks of one of his afflictions with the words, “He has shriveled me up” (
Another reference to atrophy is found in
Polio is caused by a virus—an organism so small that it is not even visible with an ordinary high power microscope. The tiny virus is found primarily in the mouth and pharynx, and in the lower bowel. Food contaminated by fecal material may contain the polio virus, and this is the principal method by which it is spread. The germ is picked up by the small bowel and travels to the central nervous system. Sometimes the disease is so mild that it is not even diagnosed excepting during an epidemic. At other times paralysis of almost every degree may occur and be permanent.
Polio is more frequent in tropical climates than farther N, and it must have been a common ailment in Biblical days. The man with the withered hand may very well have had polio years earlier, with just the single hand permanently affected by it. When paralyzed muscles are not used, withering, or atrophy, inevitably occurs.
Thanks to devoted scientists—and the goodness of God—vaccines have been developed which are amazingly effective in protecting people against polio. As with smallpox, polio is now almost unheard of in our country.
Baldness. Jews usually had a luxuriant growth of hair on head and chin. It was a source of pride to them. Foreign neighbors of Israel sometimes shaved their scalps and chins as a sign of mourning (
There were, and still are, many reasons for baldness. Perhaps the greatest is an inherited tendency. Wearing a heavy or tight hat can interfere with the flow of blood to the scalp. Advanced and debilitating diseases can be the causative factor in baldness, as also simple old age. However, the two most common causes were seborrheic dermatitis, a fungus infection with a dirty mess of greasy, yellowish crusts, and tinea capitis (ringworm of the scalp).
Blindness was common in Egypt, Israel and the Arabian countries. Poverty, unsanitary conditions, brilliant sunlight, excessive heat, blowing sand, accidents, and war injuries were some of the factors involved, but the main cause was ignorance of infectious organisms.
The blindness from birth spoken of in the Bible was prob. ophthalmia neonatorum (gonorrhea of the eyes). This has been the prime cause of infantile blindness for centuries. Women often harbor gonorrheal diplococci in their vaginas, even though they may be totally unaware of the infection. Then, when a baby is born, and it makes its passage down from the uterus, it may get some of the germs in its eyes. The conjunctiva of a baby is an ideal breeding place for gonococci, and in about three days the baby’s eyes run with pus. In many cases permanent blindness results. In modern practice, antiseptic drops are placed in the infant’s eyes immediately after birth, and the infective organisms that may be present are destroyed.
The other frequent cause of blindness was trachoma. The infecting organism is a virus. I have treated scores of Navajo Indians with this disease, and it was a pitiful sight to see them come in with their bleary, itching, painful eyes. Some of them had an apron of tissue, called a pannus, growing down over the cornea. Many older people had badly deformed eyelids, and some were blind. Today’s sulfa drugs provide an easy and complete cure, but in former days it was a devastating illness.
Boil. It is likely that the word “boil” as used in the Bible covered many types of skin diseases, such as pustules, simple boils, carbuncles, abscesses and infected glands.
Boils, as we know them today, are usually caused by staphylococci. These germs are normally present on the surface of the skin, and do no harm unless there is some kind of injury to the skin, allowing the germs to get inside and proliferate. The body reacts with its defense of leucocytes, and in the battle that ensues germs, leucocytes and debris may form a painful pocket of pus that we call a boil. If the boil is single and comes to a head, it ruptures and recovery follows.
A carbuncle is much like a collection of boils in a limited area. The infection runs deeper than an ordinary boil and has several openings. It is commonly located in the back of the neck. It usually covers an area several inches in diameter, and sometimes is fatal.
An abscess may be minor, but frequently is deep, involving important structures of the body, such as muscles, lungs, brain, liver, spleen, kidney, bowel and appendix.
Hezekiah’s boil must have been a carbuncle or deep abscess, as his life hung in the balance when he was afflicted with it. Job’s boils were superficial, or they would have resulted in his death. The boils of the sixth Egyp. plague prob. were extremely painful superficial boils.
The Babylonians used boils in its broader sense. Recently archeologists dug up a Babylonian tablet which stated that if a physician cut into a boil and the patient died, the physician would have both his hands cut off. If the patient happened to be a slave, the physician’s hands were spared, but he had to buy another slave for the owner of the patient. So, the doctor had to be extremely careful when he lanced an abscess or a boil.
Consumption. This word appears only twice in the Bible (
Deafness may be partial or complete. There are several general areas that may be involved in deafness. The first of these is the external ear canal. With the sand, dust and drying heat of the mid-East, there must have been many cases in which the ear canal became plugged with wax and dirt, producing a serious degree of deafness. Undoubtedly many persons suffered deafness much of their lives because of dirty ears. Infections of the external ear canal were also common in tropical and semi-tropical countries.
The middle ear is another frequent source of trouble. This little chamber with its three tiny ossicles—the malleus, incus and stapes—forming a little chain from the ear drum to the window of the cochlea, and the Eustachian tube coming into it from the pharynx, serves an important function in hearing. The area may become infected by organisms coming through a ruptured ear drum, or through the Eustachian tube. Severe deafness may also be due to the ossicles becoming rigidly solidified to each other following an infection.
The inner ear is the third possible location of trouble. It is called the cochlea because it resembles a snail shell. It is really an extension of the auditory nerve. Infection of the cochlea or tumors of the auditory nerve and hearing center of the brain are uncommon, but severe when they occur.
It should be remembered that we have two ears and that it is possible to be deaf in one and not the other.
“Deaf” and “deafness” are also used fig. with reference to lack of response to the voice of God (
There is a curious reference to the deafness of an adder (
Demon possession. See Demon. It is undeniably true that in Biblical days diseases in general were ascribed to the presence of evil spirits in the patient, although not so much in Israel as in other countries. Violent episodes, such as might occur with insane persons, or those with severe attacks of epilepsy, strengthened belief in demon possession.
Demon possession may simulate or cause diseases such as epilepsy, insanity, or aphasia, but it is distinguished from these in the Bible (see
Dropsy is an abnormal accumulation of serous fluid in the tissues of the body, or in one of the body cavities. If it is locked in the structure of the tissues, it is usually called edema. It is commonly seen due to a faulty heart or diseased kidneys. There is bloating of the face. Arms and legs may be greatly swollen and have a doughy appearance. Liver disease from alcoholism can fill the abdomen with gallons of fluid. The abdomen feels as hard as a drum, and pressure of the fluid against the diaphragm makes it difficult for the patient to breathe. If the fluid is drawn off with a hollow needle, it gives only temporary relief, and the abdomen soon fills up again.
Dwarf. Dwarfs seem normal at birth, but early in life it is noted that linear growth is abnormally slow, and after the tenth year it may stop entirely. This retardation in growth may have various reasons. One is a deficiency of the pituitary gland. This small gland near the base of the brain has various important functions, and one is to manufacture a growth hormone. When the supply of this hormone is insufficient, dwarfism results; if it is excessive, gigantism may result. Human growth hormone is almost impossible to obtain and extremely costly, but when used in cases of dwarfism due to deficiency of this hormone, it really stimulates growth. Thyroid extract seems to fortify its effectiveness.
Dwarfism may be an inherited characteristic, as in the pygmies of Africa. It may also be due, and often is, to such deficiencies as rickets, poor absorption of food from the small bowel, chronic kidney disease, and malformations of the heart.
Physical normalcy was demanded of Heb. priests, and therefore dwarfs were barred from priestly duties (
Dumbness may refer to total inability to speak (mutism), or to inability to speak clearly and coherently (aphasia) as was the case with the man mentioned in
Dumbness in the sense of mutism may be due to stubborn uncooperativeness, to severe depression because of an external calamity (
The dumbness of sheep was not due to inability to make a sound, but is considered to be a token of submission. Idols were called dumb (
Dysentery was a very common ailment among the people of the mid-East. It was due primarily to three types of organisms—amebae, bacteria and worms. In some cases the body adjusted itself to the invading organism, and there would be only sporadic attacks of diarrhea. But often it was very severe, and at times so bad it was called malignant dysentery. Plague is the most striking example of such malignancy. The stools consisted mainly of mucus, pus and blood. It was accompanied by severe abdominal pain, and frequently high fever. Passage of stools was painful with dysentery because of the irritating effect of the excretions. Hemorrhoids developed, and at times there was a prolapse of the lower part of the colon, as was the case with Jehoram (
Epilepsy (ἐπιληψία) is a Gr. word meaning “a seizure.” This seizure may be very light, such as a twitch of the face or hands, or even a recurring sharp, but brief abdominal pain, and is then known as “petit mal.” The really alarming attacks are called “grand mal.” The patient suddenly falls down, loses consciousness, starts shaking all over with convulsions, chews his tongue, and foams blood from his mouth. The fit lasts from five to twenty minutes.
Epilepsy, in some form, is a very common disease with an estimated average occurrence of one in every two hundred persons. Hippocrates gave a good description of it about 400 b.c. Like many of his contemporaries, he considered it due to possession by some god or demon. Sometimes it was called the “sacred disease”; at other times “possession by demons.”
The cause of epilepsy is obscure. It may be inherited. If just one party in a marriage has epilepsy, their offspring will prob. not have it; but if there is epilepsy in the person or family of both individuals, the danger of one or more of their children inheriting the disease is very great. Other causes are brain injury from accident, tumors on the brain, hardening of the arteries, etc.
With modern sedatives, the attacks can be almost completely eliminated, but no effective medical treatment was available in Biblical days.
Fever refers to bodily temperature distinctly higher than normal. Our bodily temperatures are beautifully controlled under normal circumstances by an inner mechanism which keeps the temperature at about 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. The controller of this mechanism is a small gland called the hypothalamus, located near the center of the brain. It sends its commands to the liver, heart, lungs, muscles, fat, skin, sweat glands, and other organs, and has them work in unison to keep the body temperature within approximately one degree of the normal 98.6. This temperature control system is another evidence of the supreme intelligence, wisdom and power of God in creation.
Disease may overwhelm this mechanism. When an infecting organism enters the body, a tremendous battle goes on, involving millions of cells, with the body trying desperately to defeat the invading organism. This increases the metabolism of the body and fever results. Usually the body wins and the temperature returns to normal. With extremely severe sickness, the temperature may rise to as high as 108 degrees, and death may ensue.
Peter’s mother-in-law had a high fever. It might have been due to flu, pneumonia, or an intestinal disease. It is assumed that malaria was common in the mid-East in Biblical times, and that this may have been the cause of her high fever. However, the Bible does not say and trying to identify the disease is pure speculation.
Fiery heat. This expression is used in
The temperatures in Israel ran very high in summer, and they had no air conditioning. It is true, they were acclimatized to heat, enabling them to work in temperatures that would kill someone coming from a cooler climate, but even so, the blazing sun could injure with heat stroke.
Heat stroke is characterized by body temperatures that rise very high—106 and 107 Fahrenheit, together with cessation of sweating, and with unconsciousness. It is not difficult to envisage the distress of people in a hot country, with successive years of drought, and the dangers related to the necessity of hard, physical labor in the hot sun.
The boy who cried, “Oh, my head, my head” and then died (
Headache. See Fiery Heat.
It is generally assumed, and prob. correctly so, that it was vaginal bleeding. If so, we would like to know approximately how old she was. If forty years, or less, she might have been concerned not only about the messiness of her condition, plus the loss of strength and weight, but also about the fact that she was unable to bear children—something that the women of that day took very seriously.
It is not likely that it was a continuous flow of blood. If it were, she would not have lived twelve years with it. More likely it was a frequently recurring experience. A common cause of this would be hormone imbalance. Her ovaries could have been secreting too much estrogen. Her menstrual periods would then have been prolonged and profuse, or they might have occurred more than once a month.
It has been suggested that fibroid tumors were the cause of her trouble. Many women have such tumors—most of the time without abnormal bleeding. Much depends on the locaion and size of the tumors. They may occur on the outer surface of the uterus. They may be smaller than marbles or larger than grapefruit.
Another frequent location is within the muscular walls of the uterus, expanding the uterus until at times it fills the pelvis like a wedge. In such cases constipation or distressing frequency in passing urine may be experienced, as well as heavy bleeding.
Other fibroids grow just beneath the mucosa on the inner walls of the uterus. Sometimes these appear as finger-like polyps that may be the forerunner of carcinoma.
Carcinoma must be expected in every case of chronic vaginal bleeding. The focus of the disease is usually in the cervix of the uterus. The cervix becomes ragged and cancer may develop in this area, spreading later to the body of the uterus and neighboring glands. It is not likely that the woman healed by Jesus had cancer, however. If that were the case, she would prob. have died before twelve years went by.
Impediment of speech. This physical difficulty is mentioned in
“Aphasia” is such an impediment and it appears in many forms. For example, some persons are at a total loss for words when they smell something and want to give expression to their reaction. Others have the same experience when it concerns tasting food. Others have what is called “amnesic aphasia.” They cannot recall certain words that ordinarily are completely familiar to them. Then there are those with motor aphasia—people who know what they want to say but cannot utter the words because the muscles of mouth and face refuse to respond. Persons with gibberish aphasia speak words and phrases that make no sense. People who stutter also have a real impediment of speech.
There are impediments of speech due to abnormalities of the face or mouth, such as a severe tongue tie, or hare lip, or a face which is badly scarred.
A rather common impediment of speech is known as auditory aphasia. Persons who were born deaf, or became deaf in early childhood—perhaps as a complication of measles—do not know what speech sounds like, and, excepting in rare cases, either do not try to talk at all, or speak with difficulty and lack of clarity. This was prob. the case of the man who was healed by Jesus, as it is recorded that he was also deaf.
Indigestion. Paul writes to Timothy “no longer drink only water, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments” (
The digestive processes of the body are more evidence of the wonderful way the Lord has fashioned us. As soon as food enters the mouth, digestion starts. Our saliva contains an enzyme called “ptyalin” which starts the digestion of carbohydrates. When the food gets to the stomach, some of the carbohydrate digestion continues, but proteins get the major attention and are broken up by pepsin and hydrochloric acid. After the stomach has completed its job, the partly digested food seeps through the pylorus into the duodenum and small intestine. Here several additional digestants get to work, including secretions from the liver and pancreas. Millions of villi—like microscopic hairs—extend from the inner surface of the bowel, absorb the digested food, and pass it on to the blood and lymph vessels.
Many people feel that they have to use a whip to this system, and so add pepper, hot sauce, or chili to their food. Some of these are powerful additives. I have tried to eat chili so strong that it felt like fire on my lips, and yet was amazed to see other persons in the restaurant eating the liquid fire with gusto.
Wine is not nearly as strong as chili, but the alcohol in it is a stimulant, and its sugar content also has a tonic effect. So Paul advises Timothy to use a little of it instead of water. The word “little” is interesting. Paul did not want to give the impression of advocating any large use of wine.
Timothy was evidently not strong physically. Paul does not say why. Improper diet and nervous strain may have been factors. At all events, Timothy did not have an ulcer of the stomach or duodenum, for then wine would have been contraindicated.
Infirmity is a word with a very broad meaning and may refer to any disease of the body, or abnormality in its structure. The implication seems to be that something happened to him thirty-eight years previously and left him with a residual incapacity so severe that he is called impotent and was unable to compete successfully with other diseased or handicapped people in getting into the healing pool of water.
This could well have been a paralysis dating back to an attack of polio in his youth. In many cases of polio both legs are left completely and permanently paralyzed. Other extremities and organs of the body may also be involved. If his infirmity had been a continuous illness, it would in all probability have run its course in far less than thirty-eight years, and ended in either recovery or death.
Inflammation. Deadly germs, esp. streptococci and staphylococci are always present on the surface of our bodies. Surgeons are well aware of this, and before they perform a major operation they must scrub their hands with a stiff brush and plenty of soap to get them as free as possible of these germs.
The first defense against these organisms is the skin itself. Skin consists of several layers of cells packed closely together and gives excellent protection against germs.
If that skin is bruised or cut, germs immediately get in and start multiplying. They promptly encounter a second line of defense. Leucocytes (white cells) go to war with the invaders.
Leucocytes are so called because, when looked at through a microscope, they appear transparent, in contrast with the iron-laden red blood cells. They are of various types, and each kind has its own job to do. I like to think of them as state police, foot soldiers, heavy artillery, and reserves.
Leucocytes are always present in the body by billions. If you can imagine a tiny cube 1 mm. in size (1/25th of an inch), think of it, when filled with blood, as containing about 5,000,000 red cells and about 6,000 leucocytes. These leucocytes are constantly on patrol throughout the body. They are present in every organ and even in the stroma between the cells of body structures. They are continuously on the watch for foreign invaders and for any debris that may be floating along.
After a bruise or cut, the leucocytes attack invading organisms. Most of the time they win their battle with relative ease and the patient does not take his injury seriously. Sometimes, when the invaders are particularly virile or numerous, they win the first battle. The call goes out immediately for additional leucocytes held in reserve in bone marrow. Within hours, the leucocyte army will not only be doubled, but new ones by the billions will go into production.
At the site of infection, some leucocytes will absorb the invaders by a process known as phagocytosis. Microscopic examination has shown that a single leucocyte will absorb (eat) as many as 20 invaders, and some have been seen to engulf up to 100 of them. The germs are digested by the leucocytes and unwanted remnants are excreted.
As a result of this struggle, there will be inflammation with localized heat, swelling and pain. A pocket of pus may result from the debris of battle. The leucocytes can be aided by allowing the pus to escape. As healing takes place, other leucocytes (trash collectors) take the debris away. Liver and spleen are the principal organs for filtering the unwanted material from the blood. Some of it is used to manufacture new cells (re-cycling), and the balance goes primarily to the kidneys for excretion.
The inflammation may be localized, as in a single boil, or appear in multiple lesions, as predicted in
Insanity (σεληνιαζόμενος, lunatic,
Insanity is an unpleasant word. Many persons think of it in the words of
Insanity (lunacy, dementia) may be unrecognized in its early stages. It may start with a loss of mental alertness, loss of energy, difficulty in remembering, esp. concerning recent events, or the patient may have trouble connecting words so they make sense. He may become lost easily, show poor judgment, become depressed, gloomy, anxious, irritable, and fearful that someone is trying to hurt him (paranoia). He fails to take care of himself and may have to be given nursing care. His trouble may go on to total disorientation.
There is a form of dementia called Alzheimer’s disease. It starts in middle life and is the result of gradual deterioration of the cerebral cortex. It is characterized by disorder in gait, disorientation, and hallucinations. Death usually occurs in from five to eight years. This disease is of special interest because the deterioration of the brain is similar to that seen in senility.
What brings on insanity? Perhaps the greatest factor is heredity. In some cases excessive use of drugs such as barbiturates, alcohol, marijuana, and heroin may have caused the damage to the brain. Certain illnesses, such as syphilis, pernicious anemia, epilepsy, malaria, plague and typhoid fever may be responsible. Arteriosclerosis, cerebral hemorrhage, and injury are relatively common causes. The madness predicted in Deuteronomy will result from inability of the people to cope with overwhelming disaster.
Issue of blood. See Hemorrhage.
Itch. This is another of the curses with which the Lord threatened Israelites who departed from the faith (
The chief culprit in producing itch is a tiny mite known as “Sarcoptes Scabiei” and the disease it generates is known as Scabies. The female in the Scabies family is the one who does all the hard work. She digs through the upper layer of skin and makes a burrow for her home. The burrow is short—just a small fraction of an inch—but it is a definite characteristic of Scabies. A clever dermatologist, with the aid of a magnifying glass, can pull the Scabies mite out of its burrow.
While in that burrow, the Scabies mite causes intense itching, esp. at night. The victimized person scratches desperately to relieve the itching, frequently digging through the skin and starting serious infection.
The Scabies mite has a few favorite spots for burrowing. They include the inner surface of the wrist, the lower abdomen, and the glans penis.
The Scabies mite is stubborn and may exist for years (seven year itch) in unclean, untreated individuals. It is prevalent in time of war and has been known to seriously handicap soldiers.
Lice also can make life miserable with their itching. There are three well known types—the head louse, the body louse, and the crab (or pubic) louse.
Leprosy was greatly feared by the Israelites, not only because of the physical damage done by the disease, but also because of the strict isolation laws applying to leprosy, making the patients feel like feared outcasts of society.
It was in 1873 that a Norwegian by the name of G. Armauer Hansen discovered a bacillus he called “Myobacterium leprae,” which he found in nearly all cases of leprosy, and abundantly so in severe cases. The more euphonious term of “Hansen’s disease” is now commonly used instead of leprosy.
Leprosy appears in two principal forms. The first, and by far the more dangerous, is called “lepromatous”; and the other, more benign type, is designated as “tuberculoid.”
Both start with discoloration of a patch of skin. This patch may be white or pink. It is most likely to appear on the brow, nose, ear, cheek or chin. I have seen one case of beginning leprosy with a whitish patch on the side of the abdomen. The patient said he felt no pain whatever when the skin in this patch was repeatedly pierced by a needle.
In the lepromatous type of leprosy the patch may spread widely in all directions. Portions of the eyebrows may disappear. Spongy, tumorlike swellings grow on the face and body. The disease becomes systemic and involves the internal organs as well as the skin. Marked deformity of hands and feet occur when the tissues between the bones deteriorate and disappear. Often the sensory nerve endings no longer respond to heat or injury and the unwary patient may be subject to further destruction of his limbs before he realizes his danger.
Leprosy is a long lasting disease. Untreated cases may be sick with lepromatous leprosy from ten to twenty years, death occurring from the disease itself or from an intercurrent invasion of the weakened body by tuberculosis or some other disease.
The tuberculoid type is less severe. As stated, it starts with a change of skin color in a localized area. More such patches may follow and each patch is characteristically surrounded by a low ridge. However, the tuberculoid type of leprosy tends to be limited and even untreated cases heal completely in from one to three years. What a wonderful feeling it must have been for such patients to return to their priest and be declared healed!
One interesting phenomenon in both the lepromatous and tuberculoid types is that they have recurrent periods of exacerbation and subsidence. During the period of exacerbation the lepromatous cases suffer fever, pain and prostration. This flare-up may last for hours, days or weeks, and it is during these periods that the disease is most contagious.
So far as we know, the Hebrews had no cure for leprosy other than divine intervention. In modern times, there are very effective medicines available, and leprosy patients are usually not isolated.
Lunacy. See article on Lunatic.
Madness. See article on Madness.
Surgeons who have had to cut through two to four inches of fat to get into an abdomen can easily understand what happened to Eglon. Moreover, excessive fat is located not only in a thick, greasy layer between the skin and muscles, but also in the abdomen with its thick mesentery and abundance of fat around the organs.
A panel of doctors from the American Medical Association, testifying in a U.S. Senate Committee hearing, stated that the principal causes of obesity were: 1) heredity, 2) glandular disturbance, 3) nervous worry, and 4) big appetite. Another is the desire for prestige. In countries where food was scarce and an adequate diet difficult to obtain, it was a source of pride to a person if he and the members of his family had full faces and protuberant abdomens. Once while I was in China, and in conversation with a language teacher, the teacher became enthusiastic in describing his wife, who he said was very fat and he was so proud of it. Fatness could be important in a country where the ability to obtain adequate food was uncertain, and the person might have to call on his reserves of fat, much as a camel uses the fat in his hump.
In modern times we have been alerted to the dangers of obesity with respect to our hearts, varicose veins, arteriosclerosis, arthritis, diabetes, possible surgery, and the number of years we shall live. Diet and reasonable exercise are the ingredients of relief.
Old age. Old age is a disease if it is regarded as a gradual decrease in vitality, finally ending in death.
There is a marvelous reconstruction process going on in our bodies at all times. Old cells are constantly being replaced by new ones, and it has been estimated that a person acquires almost a complete set of new cells every seven years; but the replacement cells are not all perfect. Until we reach about twenty-two years of age, the new cells are fully as good, even better, than the ones they replace. After that age limit, replacement still goes on vigorously, but the new cells are somehow defective and become increasingly so as old age creeps up with decreasing muscular strength, vague aches and pains, loss of teeth, defective eyesight and hearing, forgetfulness and other familiar handicaps.
What is missing in the body after age twenty-two that prevents renewal cells from being just as good as the ones the body received before twenty-two? Is it a hormone? Scientists are trying to find out, and it is possible they will succeed.
Prior to Noah’s time, people lived up to almost a thousand years. In later Biblical times, the average life span was much shorter than it is now. Look up the records of the lives of the kings of Judah and Israel, and note at what age most of them died! Today we may be grateful if our lives have been free from serious diseases and we may slowly, almost imperceptibly, move to the day of our transition.
Palsy. See the article on Palsy.
Pestilence is a word that is used frequently in the Bible. There is a striking example of David’s sin that was punished with the death of 75,000 of his people by a pestilence (
Plague is the disease most likely referred to. It was endemic in Egypt and along the Mediterranean Coast of Pal. In severe outbreaks of the disease, death usually occurred within three days of the first appearance of symptoms.
Some Biblical scholars have suggested that cholera might be implicated, but according to Beeson and McDermott, “Prior to the nineteenth century, cholera was unknown outside India.”
If cholera did exist in the land of Israel, it certainly would fit under the heading of pestilence. It is commonly transmitted by contaminated drinking water or by food that had been grown in fields fertilized with human excrement. It is endemic in India and oriental countries. It is characterized by a terrific diarrhea, with adult patients passing up to thirty quarts of liquid bowel movement in one day. Patients drink great quantities of water, if they can get it. In modern times, early treatment cures almost every case; but when patients are not treated, the death rate in adults is about seventy percent.
Plague. See Plague.
Scabies. See Itch in this article.
Scurvy. See Scurvy.
Skin diseases. The Hebrews had a wide variety of skin diseases and many of them are listed in the Bible. See Caul, Scab, Sore, Scurvy, Tetter and Ulcer; also (in this article) Baldness, Boil, Inflammation, Itch, Leprosy and Scabies.
Starvation is a matter people in the mid-East were well acquainted with in Biblical times. Periods of drought were common, and when they continued for successive years they were disastrous. We need think only of the experience of the Egyptians and Joseph. The drought was so bad that Joseph induced the Egyptians to pay for their food with their personal wealth, then with their livestock, next their land, and finally with their freedom, making them all slaves of the Pharaoh.
The craving of a hungry man for food can be extreme. Within the brain there is a small portion of brain tissue known as the hypothalamus. This organ has control of appetite and sends out agonizing sensations of hunger when the food intake is seriously inadequate. Experience of soldiers in concentration camps, such as the men captured by the Japanese at Bataan, show to what extremes men will go to get a morsel of food when they are being starved.
Civilized people have been known to resort to cannibalism. If a mother had a baby, she prepared her afterbirth as food. Parents will eat their children in extremities of hunger, and men will eat one of their comrades if he succumbs during a desperate search for food in a desert, or the sea, or when caught in a siege.
When the intake of calories is less than the body needs for its metabolism, reserve body fat is first used. When this is largely exhausted, the proteins will be called on. Meanwhile, of course, the body is gradually weakening until it dies either from starvation, or from an intercurrent disease that has gotten a foothold in the weakened body. If the water is easily obtainable, a healthy man may live from thirty to forty days without food. With no water, he will be gone in less than half that time.
Tetter. See the article on Tetter.
Trachoma. See Blindness in this article.
Ulcer. See the article on Ulcer.
Worms are perhaps as nearly omnipresent and prolific as any animals on earth. Certainly the Israelites had plenty of them while living under rather primitive conditions in a semitropical country. The variety of them is almost unbelievable. Some of the main groups are tapeworms, flukes, roundworms, hookworms, ascariases, threadworms, and our old nemesis, the pinworm. Authorities say that there are over a half million identifiable species.
The tapeworm gets into the body when persons eat food infected with them. The worm has three or four suckers, and with these attaches itself to the upper part of the small bowel. The worms are flat, like a ribbon, and grow in segments. Sex is no problem as they are all bisexual (hermaphrodites). In the small bowel they allow themselves to be swished back and forth by the liquid food.
As long as there is plenty of food coming down from the stomach, the bowel doesn’t mind the floating ribbon of tapeworm enjoying a share.
It is interesting to note that the tapeworm absorbs food through the covering of its body. It has no mouth. It would be the same as if we were able to smear peanut butter on our abdomen and have it absorbed directly through the skin.
There are beef, pork and fish tapeworms. They grow to be ten or more yards long and some live twenty-five years. Segments of the tail break off, and some of these segments are loaded with eggs. They may reach a farmer’s fields when included in fertilizer and grow on the plants that the cattle eat. The embryos penetrate the muscles of the cattle. People eat the infected meat and a new life cycle begins.
It should be noted here that with tapeworms, as well as with other species of worms, the body can well tolerate a few of them, but when they overpopulate they can cause serious illness and even death.
Flukes are the small worms that our soldiers had so much trouble with in Vietnam. Somehow the eggs of flukes penetrate snails. The flukes multiply rapidly, get into water, and attach themselves with suckers to anyone sloshing through the water. They dig through the skin, enter the blood stream and reach the lungs. Ultimately they land in the veins of the liver, intestine and bladder, where they may do permanent damage.
It is estimated that one-fourth of the population of Africa is infected by these flukes. In Israel, Iraq and Iran they are endemic. Irrigation is a big help to the flukes and their snails. When the Aswan Dam was being built in Egypt and irrigation started, the pools of water came alive with flukes and started an epidemic.
Pinworms are one of our commonest worms and are well-known in the mid-East also. They have an interesting life cycle in that the female pinworm migrates to the anus, usually during the night and deposits her eggs. She then causes intense itching of the anus, and sometimes of the vagina also. The normal reaction is to scratch. Eggs get under finger nails and next day into the food, to start life all over again in the intestine. Surgeons operating for appendicitis occasionally find the appendix filled with pinworms.
The Ascaris lumbricoides is the large roundworm found in man, and it has been estimated that one in every four people of the world have it. The Ascaris has a daily output of about 200,000 eggs. It has a dangerous habit of forming bridges across the lumen of the bowel and thus occasionally causing intestinal obstruction.
The hookworm is a little fellow that sucks blood from the small bowel and causes anemia. It grows rapidly in warm, moist soil. It is able to climb stems of grass as high as three feet. Like some other worms, if they are able to reach the skin of man, they penetrate it and travel with the blood stream to the lungs. Then, in some strange way, they are able to squeeze through the walls of the alveoli of the lungs, climb up the bronchi, go down the esophagus and reach their favorite home in the bowel.
The guinea worm often is mentioned in a discussion of mid-Eastern worms. It is not as prolific as some of the others, but has an interesting life. The worm is found in shallow wells or pools used for drinking water, and thus gets into the human body. As is more often the case, the male is small and not very important except for copulation and fertilizing eggs.
The female grows until she may be a yard long. To discharge her larvae she works her way through the body till she reaches the buttocks or thighs. There she secretes a little toxin from her head and raises a vesicle. When the top is rubbed off this vesicle, she lets go of her larvae and hopes they will safely get to drinking water again. It is important to pull the long worm out of the body. This is done by grasping her head end and winding her on a stick, an inch or two a day, until she is completely dislodged. If, during this process, the yard long worm is broken and the remaining part cannot be found, a serious infection may take place.
White and Geschichter, Diagnosis in Daily Practice, (1943); Reich and Nechtow, Practical Gynecology (1950); W. A. Dorland, The American Illustrated Medical Dictionary (1951); G. M. Lewis, Practical Dermatology (1952); G. C. Sauer, Manual of Skin Diseases (1959); W. A. Sodeman and W. A. Sodeman, Jr., Pathologic Physiology (1961); A. C. Guyton, Textbook of Medical Physiology, (1966); P. B. Beeson & W. McDermott, Textbook of Medicine (1971).