Medicine

MEDICINE

Miraculous healing.

Cases of divine healing are recorded throughout Bible times. These events were most common in the times of the four gospels, but also appear in apostolic contexts and are sporadically recorded in the OT. Examples in the latter are the healing of Naaman’s leprosy (2 Kings 5:8-14) and of Miriam’s leprosy (Num 12:1-15), the restoration of Jeroboam’s withered hand (1 Kings 13:4-6) and the recovery of Hezekiah from what now would be called a severe carbuncle, H-bug or a staphylococcal infection (2 Kings 20:1-11). Raising of the dead is recorded once at the hand of Elijah (1 Kings 17:17-24), and once through Elisha (2 Kings 4:1-37). Although in this latter case death may have been due to sunstroke, fulminating meningitis also is possible. Subarachnoid hemorrhage, due to rupture of an artery at the base of the brain is another possibility, but this does not occur often in one so young.

The four gospels record some two dozen instances of physical healing of either individuals or groups. In one case ten lepers were healed together. Definite distinction is made between physical sickness and demon possession (Mark 1:32-34).

When claims for faith healing are made today, it frequently is easy to discount them as cases of neurotic illness (psychological illness with apparent physical signs and symptoms), mistakes in diagnosis or prognosis, remissions or temporary improvements which are well-known in many incurable diseases, temporary alleviation of symptoms by some means, or the simultaneous pursuit of medical treatment. Most modern claims collapse under this scrutiny. However, the healings of Christ clearly pass these tests. He healed lepers, a man with longstanding paralysis causing wasting, a woman with curvature of the spine, an epileptic, lunatics, and a woman with a gynecological disorder, prob. a uterine fibroid (Matt 9).

John’s accounts of healing are much more selective than the other evangelists, and usually are presented to illustrate some spiritual truth such as the parallel between physical and spiritual blindness, where Christ is set forth as the answer to the latter (John 9).

The apostolic miracles also are notable such as the healing of the man lame from birth (Acts 3). See Healing, Health; Diseases.

It is interesting to note that the miracles of healing do not occur evenly throughout Bible times. They are mainly centered around the times of the Exodus, the prophets Elijah and Elisha, and the beginning of the Christian era. This illustrates that their primary function is revelatory. They are used as signs to confirm faith in something new that God was doing.

The belief that healing is “in the atonement,” i.e., that Christ died for all sicknesses and sins, and that there we can claim all physical healing by faith, finds no support in the Scriptures. Professor Rendle Short in The Bible and Modern Medicine points out that there are few recorded healings of patients with ailments such as coughs, abscesses or fractures, from which they were likely to recover anyway. If any group of Christians should have been able to apply faith in this way, it would have been the apostolic Christians, but there are several well-documented cases of illness among them. Timothy suffered from stomach ailments, prob. gastro-enteritis (1 Tim 5:23); Trophimus was so ill that he could not travel with Paul (2 Tim 4:20); Epaphroditus nearly died (Phil 2:30). In the light of 2 Corinthians 12:7-9 and Galatians 4:13-15 it seems inescapable that Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” was a physical ailment.

The oft-quoted Matthew 8:17 refers to Christ’s pre-Calvary work. Although Jesus Christ is “the same yesterday today and forever,” as Hebrews 13:8 points out, it does not mean that He acts in the same way under different circumstances and in different ages.

Demon possession.

Some modern critics would say that the Biblical idea of demon possession was the attempt of an unscientific age to explain diseases like epilepsy and the various types of insanity. This would make Christ either in error Himself, or intentionally conforming to the ideas of the day, in both cases giving false and misleading teaching. This is unacceptable.

Admittedly some of the NT cases do sound like description of modern-day mental illness and epilepsy (e.g., Matt 17:15). In this case the Lord is specifically recorded as having cast a demon out of this boy. The clinical descriptions are far from complete, and thus comparison with known diseases must be made with reserve. However, a demonic influence could surely stimulate the motor cortex, the part of the brain initiating movement of limb and other muscles, and thus precipitate an epileptic-like convulsion.

Two cases, interesting in the face of present-day psychiatric knowledge, are those of Saul and Nebuchadnezzar. The picture given of Saul, in the middle chs. of 1 Samuel, is of a man who periodically had deep depressive moods with dangerous delusions of persecution (paranoia in technical language) in which he could be soothed by the playing of a harp.

The above explanation does not conflict with 1 Samuel 16:14 which states that “an evil spirit from the Lord tormented him.” The fruit of this type of mental illness certainly can be regarded as the evil power acting through a twisted mind, even if it is indirectly by way of the patient’s subconscious. This is as far as the writer of 1 Samuel would be able to see. Note also the Biblical way of regarding God as finally responsible for everything—His active and permissive will are not distinguished.

Nebuchadnezzar clearly was afflicted with mental illness at the height of his pride, which is described in the latter part of Daniel 4. It has been suggested, prob. correctly, that he was suffering from severe melancholia or depression. He prob. had a tendency to manic-depression. This is a mental condition in which periods of uncontrollable elation and high pressure irrational mental activity alternate with spells of deep depression. In this case the emphasis was on the depression with only a tendency in the other direction shown, for one cannot blame insanity for his overweening pride—“Is not this great Babylon, which I have built for the royal dwelling place...by the might of my power” (ASV).

As is typical in this condition, the periods of elation are followed by depths of depression from which recovery usually occurs.

Preventive medicine.

A powerful argument for the guiding hand of a supernatural being can be found by studying the sanitary laws of Israel. Compared with the primitive ideas of the surrounding tribes, the children of Israel were centuries ahead. Apart from the refinements that more detailed technical knowledge brings, their preventive medicine compared favorably with that of modern civilizations. It has been suggested that these rules were merely the result of intelligent observation, but the strong tendency for the ancient mind to find a supernatural or magical explanation for natural phenomena argues heavily against this theory. Repeatedly one finds the statement, “The Lord said unto Moses.” All other explanations are unsatisfactory.

There was a strong emphasis on personal cleanliness. Ceremonial washings were commonplace and the use of some form of soap has an early origin. “Lye” was surely the natron or washing soda collected in antiquity from the alkali lakes of Egypt (Jer 2:22).

It was recognized that an uncontaminated water supply is essential to a healthy community. Infection of the water supply may lead to typhoid, cholera and dysentery epidemics. Dead animals in still water were known to contaminate the water, although this did not apply to spring water after the carcass was removed (Lev 11:29-36).

It is truly remarkable that each man was held personally responsible for the disposal of his own excreta (Deut 23:12-14). Foods likely to transmit disease also were restricted, although there was no knowledge of the disease processes involved.

The principle of isolation for lepers and of quarantine for other health reasons were important, but also quite out of keeping with then current medical knowledge.

Leprosy in the Bible.

The modern disease known as leprosy is a condition caused by a rod-shaped bacterium or bacillus called Mycobacterium leprae, which belongs to the same family as tuberculosis. Like tuberculosis, it is a long-lasting condition characterized by areas of chronic low grade inflammation.

Nodular leprosy is characterized by the appearance of nodules in the skin, particularly on the face, back of the hands and wrists. Later the three main nerves in the arm are involved, with resultant paralysis. The nodules tend to burst and ulcerate, leading to ugly sores.

In neural leprosy, the main involvement is that of the peripheral nerves supplying the skin of the limbs. This leads to loss of feeling. In any condition in which this occurs, the anaesthetic (numb) parts become damaged to a surprising degree because the protection of pain sensation is gone. Thus penetrating ulcers form with infection and death of bone, particularly in hands and feet.

There is no description of any disease in ancient lit. that fairly definitely sounds like modern leprosy except for a legendary account from China. In studying OT references to leprosy, one must realize that he is not bound to accept that the Bible is indicating a carefully classified condition caused by Mycobacterium leprae and answering to the above description. The word ṩara’at, tr. as leprosy, apparently is used for a whole group of ugly skin conditions. Because the word is used by people without a modern scientific education to indicate a group of conditions completely unrelated by the standards of a dermatology text book, this does not mean the Bible is in error. It merely indicates a use of the word for people with a much more superficial knowledge than we have today.

Leviticus 13 gives a description of ṩāra’at and the regulations applying to patients concerning worship. Although ṩāra’at may have included the modern condition of leprosy, the fact that the word is unlikely to be synonymous with “leprosy” is pointed out by Dr. R. G. Cochrane, medical adviser to the American Leprosy Missions in a booklet called Biblical Leprosy. There is little resemblance between the description of disease given in Leviticus 13 and modern leprosy. In particular, loss of sensation is not mentioned.

Dr. Cochrane draws attention to the fact that the phrase “a leprosy” is used a number of times suggesting that the word was recognized as a group of conditions (e.g., vv. 8, 12). The regulations of uncleanliness for these patients as far as corporate worship was concerned was good preventive medicine, as it slowed the spread of disease by quarantine.

Dr. Cochrane further points out that leprous areas are never white (see Lev 13:13). This description appears in other references. For instance, in Exodus 4:6 Moses is commanded to put his hand in his bosom and when he took it out “behold, his hand was leprous, as snow.” After Aaron’s and Miriam’s complaint about Moses, “Miriam became leprous, white as snow” (Num 12:10). Gehazi went out “a leper, as white as snow” (2 Kings 5:27). He suggests that these quotations answer to the description of leucoderma, a condition in which there is complete loss of pigment from certain areas of skin with surrounding areas more deeply pigmented than normal. The awful social stigma would be there nevertheless. Interestingly, this condition actually is called “white leprosy” in India.

It is far more likely that the various lepers healed by Christ (e.g., Luke 17:12-19) had the disease known as leprosy today, since the latter was known in Israel at this time. It also seems to fit in better with the hopeless state of these ostracized people as it is described.

Circumcision.

Circumcision was established as a national practice for the descendants of Abraham (Gen 17). It marked a covenant or agreement between God and a people He was setting apart in a special place. Paul points out that such a covenant brings added responsibility rather than honor. Being a Jew meant nothing in itself, if there was no “circumcision of the heart” (Rom 2:29), or spiritual surrender of the individual to God.

The Jews removed the foreskin of their male babies on the eighth day as part of their fulfillment of the law. This was done with a sharp stone (Exod 4:25) or a sharp knife (Josh 5:2).

Today, even in Eng.-speaking lands, circumcision is widely practiced. The advisability of circumcision is one field in which there is room for difference of opinion in the medical profession. Some doctors never advise it, others do as a general rule. There are a minority of babies in which the prepuce is very tight, and circumcision should be done. For the rest, in the present writer’s opinion, the reasons for and against on medical grounds are practically equal.

Infant circumcision in antiquity was apparently limited to Israel. This practice helped the Jews to avoid the licentious puberty circumcision rites practiced in some surrounding nations.

Obstetrics in the Bible.

The Bible does not profess to be a textbook of science or medicine, but in spite of this few realize how many references occur in the Bible related to childbirth. The birth of children and attendant circumstances did, in fact, play a prominent part in the lives of OT and NT characters. In fact, it was of such importance that the fertile woman was honored and the barren pitied or even despised. When Hagar conceived, her childless mistress Sarah was despised in her eyes (Gen 16:4). Such was Rachel’s distress at her barrenness, that she said to Jacob, “Give me children, or I shall die” (Gen 30:1). This feeling of inferiority was carried over into the NT, for Elizabeth, just before the birth of John the Baptist, said, “Thus the Lord has done to me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach among men” (Luke 1:25).


It is interesting to notice on record two undoubtedly miraculous examples of post-menopausal (change of life) conception.

“And he said...and, lo, Sarah thy wife shall have a son....Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women” (Gen 18:11).

“And behold, your kinswoman Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren” (Luke 1:36).

Back in early times, labor was regarded as an extremely painful experience. The day of desolation of Edom is described in Jeremiah 49:22 as the day in which “the heart of the warriors of Edom shall be in that day like the heart of a woman in her pangs.”

The Lord Himself said that “When a woman is in travail she has sorrow, because her hour has come; but when she is delivered of the child, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a child is born into the world” (John 16:21). That it was recognized that women having their first child had a worse time than the others is suggested (Jer 4:31).

“For I heard a cry as of a woman in travail, anguish as of one bringing forth her first child, the cry of the daughter of Zion.”

In OT times it was sometimes friends and relatives apparently who effected the delivery. We are told of Phinehas’ wife, that at “about the time of her death the women attending her said to her, ‘Fear not, for you have borne a son.’ But she did not answer, or give heed” (1 Sam 4:20). The most likely cause of death of a mother soon after the birth of a live child is severe postpartum hemorrhage, which rarely kills today. On other occasions midwives were present (Gen 35:17; 38:28). The Egyp. midwives tried to use the apparently well-recognized fact of the rapid easy labors of the Heb. women as an excuse for not obeying Pharaoh’s command to kill the babes (Exod 1:19).

Most interesting are the references we have to complicated labor. For instance, it may well be that Moses was able to be hidden for three months by his mother before being put in the ark of bulrushes because he was very premature and thus small and weak and cried faintly.

The labor of Tamar is also interesting. “When the time of her delivery came, there were twins in her womb. And when she was in labor, one put out a hand; and the midwife took and bound on his hand a scarlet thread saying, ‘This came out first.’

“But as he drew back his hand, behold, his brother came out; and she said, ‘What a breach you have made for yourself!’

“Afterward his brother came out with the scarlet thread upon his hand” (Gen 38:27-30).

For the babes to move around this much the mother must have had a large roomy pelvis or the babes must have been very premature (as often with twins), or both. The fact that the first babe tore the perineum (“What a breach...”) is against extreme prematurity. Transverse or oblique lie with hand presentation occurs in about one in 500 cases and the babe usually has to be turned.

One reads of Jacob’s birth, following that of Esau (Gen 25:26).

“The first came forth red, all his body like a hairy mantle; so they called his name Esau. Afterward his brother came forth, and his hand had taken hold of Esau’s heel; so his name was called Jacob.”

It is not clear on a casual reading whether this was another hand presentation (much less likely) or whether the hand episode occurred with both babes born. In any case one must have followed the other very quickly.

Rachel died with the birth of Benjamin (Gen 35:16-20).

“Rachel travailed, and she had hard labor. And when she was in hard labor, the midwife said to her, ‘Fear not; for now you will have another son.’ And as her soul was departing....”

For it to be possible to determine the sex of the child while the mother was in hard labor it must have been a breech (buttocks) presentation, i.e., the buttocks were born first. There is no record of difficulty with the birth of Joseph, which is against the breech lie being caused by a small pelvis difficult for the head to fit into. A breech presentation associated with the death of the mother soon after a live birth is most likely to be due to placenta previa, a condition in which the afterbirth is attached to the inside wall of the womb at a low level. This hinders the head from fitting into the pelvis and the babe swings round into the breech position with the buttocks leading. Placenta previa is liable to be associated with hemorrhage both before and after birth and this could account for the rapid death of Rachel soon after the birth. Puerperal sepsis from infection would not kill as quickly as this. The only other common cause of maternal death, eclampsia, is unlikely since this usually is most severe in the first pregnancy, and so would be unlikely to be bad enough to kill with the second babe. Thus it is almost certain Rachel died of hemorrhage also complicating a breech delivery and this was most likely caused by placenta previa. Benjamin was indeed fortunate to survive.

Bibliography

A. R. Short, The Bible and Modern Medicine (1953); R. G. Cochrane (IVF) Biblical Leprosy; British Empire Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology (June 1960).

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

med’-i-sin, med’-i-s’-n (gehah, teruphah, rephu’ah): These words are used in the sense of a remedy or remedies for disease. In Pr 17:22 the King James Version, a merry heart is said to do good "like a medicine." There is an alternative reading in the King James Version margin, "to a medicine," the Revised Version (British and American) "is a good medicine"; the Revised Version margin gives another rendering, "causeth good healing," which is the form that occurs in the Septuagint and which was adopted by Kimchi and others. Some of the Targums, substituting a waw for the first h in gehah, read here "doeth good to the body," thus making this clause antithetic to the latter half of the verse. In any case the meaning is that a cheerful disposition is a powerful remedial agent.

In the figurative account of the evil case of Judah and Israel because of their backsliding (Jer 30:13), the prophet says they have had no rephu’ah, or "healing medicines." Later on (Jer 46:11), when pronouncing the futility of the contest of Neco against Nebuchadrezzar, Jeremiah compares Egypt to an incurably sick woman going up to Gilead to take balm as a medicine, without any benefit. In Ezekiel’s vision of the trees of life, the leaves are said (the King James Version) to be for medicine, the Revised Version (British and American) reads "healing," thereby assimilating the language to that in Re 22:2, "leaves of the tree .... for the healing of the nations" (compare Eze 47:12).

Very few specific remedies are mentioned in the Bible. "Balm of Gilead" is said to be an anodyne (Jer 8:22; compare Jer 51:8). The love-fruits, "mandrakes" (Ge 30:14) and "caperberry" (Ec 12:5 margin), myrrh, anise, rue, cummin, the "oil and wine" of the Good Samaritan, soap and sodic carbonate ("natron," called by mistake "nitre") as cleansers, and Hezekiah’s "fig poultice" nearly exhaust the catalogue. In the Apocrypha we have the heart, liver and gall of Tobit’s fish (Tobit 6:7). In the Egyptian pharmacopoeia are the names of many plants which cannot be identified, but most of the remedies used by them were dietetic, such as honey, milk, meal, oil, vinegar, wine. The Babylonian medicines, as far as they can be identified, are similar. In the Mishna we have references to wormwood, poppy, hemlock, aconite and other drugs. The apothecary mentioned in the King James Version (Ex 30:25, etc.) was a maker of perfumes, not of medicines. Among the fellahin many common plants are used as folk-remedies, but they put most confidence in amulets or charms, which are worn by most Palestinian peasants to ward off or to heal diseases.