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HEALING, HEALTH. In the Scriptures healing is the restoration to a state of health by physical means or by miracle; the methods not necessarily mutually exclusive.

Healing by physical means

Healing by means of Medicine|medicines and surgical appliances is supported by Scripture. Local applications of ointments and bandaging of wounds was certainly standard treatment in Old Testament times (Isa 1:6). Moreover, the use of a plaster made of a cake of Fig|figs to be laid upon Hezekiah’s boil was recognized as appropriate treatment and was advocated by God’s prophet (38:21). The broken arm of Pharaoh, king of Egypt, was said by the prophet to require a bandage to bind it (Ezek 30:21). Doubtless this bandage included the application of splints, for Egypt|Egyptian mummies have been found, according to Short, with broken bones treated by splints made of the bark of trees fixed with bandages. Reference is furthermore made to the healing balm of Gilead (Jer 8:22; 46:11; 51:8). Short believes that this may have been of the nature of frankincense or some similar aromatic juice from a shrub, containing benzoin, which finds medicinal use today with its pleasant odor and definite antiseptic properties. There are those who interpret James 5:14 concerning the anointing with oil as not merely referring to a religious rite, but as an injunction to accompany the prayer of faith with the application of whatever oil or balm seemed to be required in the particular instance of illness. Such applications were extensively used in Bible times, and may be regarded as similar to the present day use of applications of oil of wintergreen to joints for rheumatic symptoms or of salve to wounds.

Other than these few instances, the Bible gives little or no information regarding healing with medicines. This is no wonder, for the introduction of the great array of medicines, such as penicillin, sulfonamides, tetracyclines, insulin, and chloroquine, which are so effective today in healing and prolonging life, have all come on the scene in the past several decades.

Healing by miracle

miracle|Miraculous healing with or without associated use of physical means is frequently referred to in the Bible. It was performed, not as broadcast philanthropy, as Short points out, but as a sign. He declares that the purpose of the miracles was to show that God was at work in a new way, using and accrediting men so that their message might be believed.

Short brushes aside the natural assumption that the ailment involved was functional or hysterical in most cases. Whereas it is true that hysteria may imitate a great variety of truly organic disease|diseases, he says,

We may rest assured that the man with the withered hand, the woman with the issue of blood, the woman with the bowed back presumably due to bony fusion of the vertebrae, either tuberculous or osteoarthritic; the blindness|blind people, and the leprosy|lepers, cannot reasonably be written down as functional.... Cases of paralysis are occasionally functional, and there is a one-in-a-million chance that the patient who was brought by his four friends may have been an example, but it is begging the question to regard him as a case of hysterical paralysis just because he got well.

It is interesting to note that Christ in two cases (Mark 8:23; John 9:6) used saliva to anoint the patient’s eyes for healing, for it parallels the fact that the Egyptians believed saliva to be a valuable remedy for blindness, and Pliny and Tacitus both voiced similar beliefs. Short conjectures that Jesus used saliva partly to strengthen their faith, and partly to teach that divine healing may go hand in hand with the use of recognized medical remedies.

Health in pagan nations surrounding the Israelites

The view that history books give of conquering and defeated armies is often a distorted one. Back of these conquests was often a health situation that determined the outcome of wars.

Superstitions regarding the cause of illness

The nations round about Israel were deeply steeped in idolatry, and they frequently blamed their diseases on evil spirit|evil spirits, which must be driven out by incantations or magic|magical formulas. Without knowledge of the one true God, such vagaries of reasoning were doubtless inevitable. Epidemics wrought havoc among these peoples, often causing them to flee their lands to get away from supposed evil spirits to which they attributed disease.

Fantastic ingredients of pagan medicines

The Egyptian Papyri, discovered in Thebes about 1862, furnish medical prescriptions issued in Egypt about 1552 b.c. Sometimes these prescriptions were used to repair the supposed damage caused by an evil spirit, the medicine being given after the evil spirit was exorcism|exorcized. These prescriptions are, in the light of our day, fantastic. Listed among them, as quoted by McMillen, are

lizards’ blood, swine’s teeth, putrid meat, stinking fat, moisture from pigs’ ears, milk, goose grease, asses’ hoofs, animal fats from various sources, excreta from animals including human beings, donkeys, antelopes, dogs, cats, and even flies.

He further notes that to embedded splinters, worms’ blood and donkeys’ dung were applied, which put the patient at risk of lockjaw, since dung is a potential source of tetanus spores.

Health among the Israelites

In striking contrast, the Israelites enjoyed comparatively good health. They had been given God’s promises that, hearkening to His commandment|commandments, none of the diseases that afflicted the Egyptians would come upon them (Exod 15:26).

Significance of the laws of the Pentateuch for Israel’s health

In light of the fact that Moses was instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians (Acts 7:22), it is amazing that none of the fanciful nostrums of the day appear in the Pentateuch. McMillen concludes that there is but one answer to this: that the medical instructions of the Pentateuch were actually given to Moses by God, as He says they were. It is furthermore remarkable that what Moses recorded has stood the test of time. Indeed, the mechanism by which the Jewish race has been preserved throughout the centuries is doubtless found in the sanitary measures observed by the Jews in Europe, during the frightful scourges that visited Israel’s neighbors in ancient and medieval times. This survival took place despite the crowded ghettos of large towns, which were full of tuberculosis. Short remarks that without doubt this survival is an attestation of divine providence, whereas from a secular point of view it was rendered possible by the healthy habits of living based upon the medical instructions of the Pentateuch.

Sanitary disposal of excrement

Noteworthy is the instruction given in Deuteronomy 23:12, 13 (Berkeley), “You shall set off a place outside the camp and, when you go out to use it, you must carry a spade among your gear and dig a hole, have easement, and turn to cover the excrement.” Whereas this is in a sense a primitive measure, it is an effective one that indicates advanced ideas of sanitation. It contrasts with the dumping of excrement in unpaved city streets in Europe, even up to the close of the 18th century.

Washing and the use of running water

The emphasis on washing of the body and the clothes in water after contact with disease is worthy of comment. It is significant, too, that in some instances running water was specified (Lev 14:50) which certainly had its advantages, not only in convenience but also in actual sanitation since it eliminates the reuse of contaminated water. The introduction of modern plumbing has demonstrated this time and again. Concern for the purity of water supplies is notable in the Old Testament. For example, the elder|elders at Jericho doubtless rightly attributed the town’s epidemic to contaminated water, and so Elisha was asked to purify it (2 Kings 2:19-22). The discoveries of modern sanitary science as to typhoid fever, cholera and schistosomiasis being carried by contaminated water accent the importance of these attitudes, even though these attitudes were carried to excess when the Jews blamed Christ’s disciple|disciples for neglect of ablutions. Short refers to the Jews as a washing people and points out that Paul knew where he was most likely to find a Jewish meeting place in Philippi, because it naturally would be along the river bank where the water was.

Isolation and quarantine

Isolation and quarantine were imposed upon the Israelites in the Mosaic law. It is a natural corollary to the commandment to love one’s neighbor as oneself. It is noteworthy that, as Short points out, the Jews escaped lightly in Italy in the 14th century when others died in epidemics of plague. It was rightly concluded that this might be due to their laws of uncleanness after touching dead bodies. On this basis the Jewish code was made compulsory on the whole community, and a period of forty days quarantine (derived from quaranta, Italian for forty) was imposed (Lev 12:1-4) with salutary results. Today, with modern laboratory technology, it is possible to differentiate diseases more accurately and hence determine more specifically the needed period and strictness of isolation for the various diseases. For the day in which the regulations of the Pentateuch were promulgated, the blanket rules for preventing the spread of diseases served well.

Dietary regulations

The food laws of the Pentateuch are remarkable in the light of modern science. The restrictions regarding meats are based on two simple tests, namely, the animals suitable for human consumption must both part the hoof and chew the cud. This means that the pig and the rabbit are categorized as being unsuitable for eating. Modern parasitology has demonstrated that these animals are especially liable to infections with parasites and are safe only if well-cooked. The pig in particular is an unclean feeder, and often harbors two kinds of parasites, namely, trichina and the pork tapeworm, which are frequent causes of disease in man. These diseases still occur in the United States, although the introduction of federal meat inspection and compulsory boiling of garbage have greatly helped to reduce their incidence. In the absence of such adjuncts and good culinary apparatus, including readily available fuel for cooking (which certainly was not the case in ancient Israel), the complete avoidance of the use of these animals for food was indeed beneficial in preventing the spread of disease.

Dealing with bodily discharges

The method in the Pentateuch of dealing with infectious discharges has long aroused the admiration of experts in sanitation. Although not all bodily discharges, i.e., “issues out of the flesh” (Lev 15:2), are infectious, there are many that are. To determine which are, requires bacteriological tests that were obviously not available in Moses’ day. The disposal of discharges, therefore, was based on the assumption that all were infectious in the absence of a ready means to distinguish the infectious from the noninfectious discharges. With this in view, the discharges were dealt with in a most scientific manner. It is almost surprising to find sputum mentioned as a possible vehicle of infection (Lev 15:8), for the realization that sputum is a vehicle for the transmission of tuberculosis is usually dated to the discovery of the tubercle bacillus by Koch in the 19th cent. a.d.

Cleansing after touching the dead

The regulations of the Pentateuch regarding touching dead bodies in connection with their burial specified a period of uncleanness of seven days’ duration. During this time, the person involved must be isolated from others and had to perform certain acts that included bathing his body and washing his clothes. On completion of these acts and at the expiration of the time period, the unclean person was considered cleansed so that he could return to community life (Num 19:11-22). Such precautions ought to have been considered essential for dealing with a body that had died of smallpox, plague, or other contagious diseases so rampant in those days. Modern health provisions including isolation regulations have so reduced the incidence of these diseases in America that the average individual is unaware of the real risk of these diseases spreading. Actually, they are still a menace in some parts of the world, and it is only by constant vigilance and strict enforcement of health regulations that they are kept from spreading to the United States in today’s swift air travel. Application of the same regulations in death from all causes was warranted in Moses’ day since at that time methods of distinguishing between contagious diseases and other causes of death were not established on a scientific basis.

Sexual morality

Administrator's note: this section needs to be developed.

Circumcision and its timing.

Modern medical data demonstrate that, where male circumcision is practiced, the incidence of cancer of the male procreative organ is greatly reduced. Interestingly enough, the incidence of cancer of the female genitals, particularly of the cervix uteri (the mouth of the womb), is likewise greatly reduced where the husband has been circumcised. This low incidence of cancer of the genitals of both sexes is attributed to the absence of carcinogenic smegma in the circumcised male, since without the foreskin, smegma can no longer be harbored in this location for local irritation in the male or for transmission to a female sex partner. In the light of this, circumcision of males may not only be regarded as a religious rite but also as a hygienic measure. Moreover, the specification in the Pentateuch of the eighth day after birth, constitutes the optimum time for circumcision as demonstrated by modern research, McMillen points out. After cutting off the foreskin, stanching of bleeding requires two elements to be present: (1) One of these is vitamin K, which is not formed in normal amounts in the baby’s intestine until the fifth to seventh day of life. Then by the eighth day adequate amounts of vitamin K are absorbed into the blood to enhance clotting. (2) The other essential element is prothrombin. Careful investigations of the available prothrombin are charted by McMillen and show that on the third day of a baby’s life the available prothrombin is only 30 percent, whereas on the eighth day it is 110 percent, after which it levels off to 100 percent. In other words there is more prothrombin available for clotting the blood on the eighth day of life than at any other time in the whole life of the individual.

Significance of the laws of the Pentateuch to public health today.

Modern sanitary measures have been arrived at occasionally as the outcome of research and discovery, sometimes through trial and error; but frequently these measures have been developed by reverting to the sanitary precepts of the Pentateuch, even in the absence of clear rationale for doing so. McMillen, quoting Rosen, points out that following the major plagues of the Dark Ages, including leprosy and the Black Death, which left the physicians of the day completely perplexed, order came out of chaos only when the church took over and used as its guiding principle the concept of contagion embodied in the OT. Thus combating leprosy, the first great feat in methodical eradication of disease was accomplished. More recently, the writer, when in China as a medical missionary, observed at first hand the decimating effects of contagious diseases such as diphtheria and scarlet fever in the absence of quarantine as it wiped out the early-school-age child population of whole villages. Amazingly, the nationals in the primitive part of the country viewed our notions of quarantine as a kind of imported Western superstition. Eventually the government public health services, organized on modern epidemic prevention principles, took over with salutary results.

Modern surgical procedures are largely made possible through the simple measure of washing the hands, introduced in 1847 by Semmelweis under such great protest and ridicule that it was many years before it was universally adopted. Yet the oft-repeated, almost monotonous, admonition to wash one’s body with water and change the clothes as instructed in Leviticus furnishes the key to the whole matter. Before surgeons adopted these principles, the mortality following major surgical operations was exceedingly high.

McMillen further points out that the New York State Department of Health became so alarmed over the spread of infections from a carrier who failed to wash his hands carefully that in 1960 the department issued a book on techniques for washing the hands, which approximates the Scriptural method given in Numbers 19. See Circumcision; Disease; Medicine.


P. E. Adolph, Surgery Speaks to China (1945), 92; A. R. Short, The Bible and Modern Medicine (1953), 37-46, 70-73, 101-108; P. E. Adolph, Release From Tension, 137-145; J. Kessel. “The Man with the Miraculous Hands,” Reader’s Digest, LXXVIII (May 1961), 277, 278 (condensed from the book); S. I. McMillen, None of These Diseases (1963), 11-24.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

In the Old Testament this word is always used in its figurative sense; marpe’, which literally means "a cure," is used in Jer 14:19 twice, and in Mal 4:2; te`alah, which literally means "an irrigation canal," here means something applied externally, as a plaster, in which sense it is used metaphorically in Jer 30:13; kehah occurs only in Na 3:19 the King James Version and is translated "assuagings" in the Revised Version (British and American).

In the New Testament 5 times the verb is therapeuo; once (Ac 10:38) iaomai; in the other passages it is either iama, as in 1Co 12:9-30, or iasis, as in Ac 4:22, derivatives from this verb

See also

  • Spiritual Healing