Partner with as God uses us to make a difference for those displaced by Russia's war on Ukraine.
Click to donate today!

Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible


Additional Links

MEDICINE. Palestine was probably a comparatively healthy country in Bible times, as it is now. Its natural features in most localities would protect it from the usual endemic diseases of Oriental lands, and its want of harbours would to a great extent prevent the importation of epidemics (contrast the reputation of Egypt, as attested by Deuteronomy 7:15; Deuteronomy 28:50 , Amos 4:10 ); moreover, the legislation of the Priestly Code, if it was ever observed, would have operated to prevent the spread of disease, and the existence of far-reaching destitution. These provisions, and the common occurrence of external and internal warfare, must also have tended to eliminate overcrowding as a cause of disease; but the ratio of population to area in ancient times is very difficult to estimate; the figures in 1 Chronicles 21:5 and 2 Samuel 4:9 are clearly untrustworthy.

1. Jews believed in a definite connexion between health and virtue (cf. Isaiah 58:8 , Jeremiah 8:15; Jeremiah 8:22 ). Disease was popularly regarded as penal ( John 9:2 ), and as sent by God either directly ( Exodus 4:11 , Deuteronomy 32:39 ) or permissively by means of others ( Job 2:7 , Mark 9:17; Mark 9:25 ). It might also be caused by human envy ( Job 5:2 ), or by bodily excess ( Sir 37:30-31 ), but even so its vera causa was God’s direct authorization.

Under these circumstances healing was treated as a token of Divine forgiveness ( Exodus 15:26 ). And the connexion of priest with physician was correspondingly close. On the whole, the medical knowledge of the Bible peoples was very defective; nor are there any traces of medical education in Palestine. Jacob was embalmed by Egyptian physicians ( Genesis 50:2 ), but there must probably have been some Jewish practitioners at the time when Exodus 21:19 was compiled. The word in Jeremiah 8:22 means a ‘bandager.’ The writer of 2 Chronicles 16:12 seems to take the extreme view that it was a sin to consult physicians, but saner ideas are represented in Sir 38:2 . Still, it may be doubted whether medical duties were not usually performed by priests (as in early Egypt), at any rate in the earlier OT times; certainly the priests had the supervision in the case of certain diseases, e.g . leprosy; and prophets also were applied to for medical advice (cf. 1 Kings 14:2; 1 Kings 17:18 , 2 Kings 4:22; 2 Kings 20:7 ). And even in Sir 38:14 the physician is regarded as having certain priestly duties, and the connexion between religion and medicine is seen in the counsel, given in that same chapter, that repentance and an offering shall precede the visit of the physician. In the NT we have St. Luke described as a physician ( Colossians 4:14 ), and a somewhat depreciatory remark on physicians in Matthew 5:26 , which, however, is much toned down in Luke 8:43 .

It is therefore probable that up till late times medicine was in the charge of the priests, whose knowledge must have been largely traditional and empirical. The sacrificial ritual would give them some knowledge of animal morphology, but human anatomy can scarcely have existed as a science at all, since up to about a.d. 100 the ceremonial objections to touching or dissecting the dead prevailed. Thus Bible references to facts of anatomy and physiology are very few in number. Blood was tabooed as food ( Genesis 9:4 , Leviticus 17:11 ) a highly important sanitary precaution, considering the facility with which blood carries microbes and parasites. A rudimentary embryology can be traced in Job 10:10 , Psalms 139:15-16 (cf. Ecclesiastes 11:5 ). But most of the physiological theories adverted to in the Bible are expressed in language of poetry and metaphor. On the whole, however, we may infer that the Jews (like other ancient peoples) regarded the heart as the seat of mental and moral activity (exceptions to this view are Daniel 2:28; Daniel 4:5; Daniel 7:1 ), the reins or kidneys as the seats of impulse, affection, conscience ( Jeremiah 11:20; Jeremiah 12:2 , Psalms 7:9 ), the bowels as the organs of sympathy ( Psalms 40:8 , Job 30:27 ). Proverbs about physicians seem to be alluded to in Matthew 9:12 , Luke 4:23 , Sir 38:1 . Except in the case of certain diseases, visitation of the sick is enjoined in the Talmud (though not in the OT), and enforced by Christ in Matthew 25:36 .

2 . General terms for disease . The words ‘sick,’ ‘sickness,’ ‘sicknesses,’ ‘disease,’ ‘diseased,’ ‘diseases,’ are of the most frequent occurrence, though they are not always used as the tr. [Note: translate or translation.] of the same words in the original. Sometimes the term is qualified, e.g . ‘sickness unto death’ ( Isaiah 38:1 ), ‘sore sickness’ ( 1 Kings 17:17 ), ‘evil disease’ ( Psalms 41:8 ), ‘incurable disease’ ( 2 Chronicles 21:18 ). We also have ‘ infirmity ’ three times in the OT, in Leviticus 12:2 meaning periodic sickness, in Psalms 77:10 as weakness from sickness, in Proverbs 18:14 as weakness generally. The term plague is sometimes used of a specific epidemic, at other times of sickness in general. There are also various figurative expressions for disease, and in some places it is described as inflicted by the angel of God, e.g . 2 Samuel 24:16 . In the NT, again, various Gr. words are translated by ‘sickness,’ ‘disease,’ ‘infirmity’; the allusion in 1 Corinthians 11:30 may be to mental weakness, and in Romans 15:1 to weakness of conscience.

Some diseases, e.g . leprosy, were regarded as unclean, and those suffering from them were excluded from cities. But in general the sick were treated at home. As to the treatment we know very little. It is possible that in earlier times bleeding was not resorted to because of the taboo on blood, though in later times the Jews followed the universal practice. Proverbs 30:15 has been supposed to show a knowledge of the medicinal use of leeches; but this inference can by no means be drawn with any certainty from the context.

3. Specific diseases . As a rule the Bible references to specific diseases are general and vague; and even where we find concrete mention of particular ailments, it is not always easy to decide what the exact nature of the maladies was. In some cases the symptoms are given, though sometimes very indefinitely.

In Deuteronomy 28:22 a group of terms is used for diseases which appear to resemble each other in the fact that they are sudden, severe, epidemic, and fatal. The first is called consumption . This may be phthisis, but more probable it means a kind of wasting fever, characterized by weakness and anæmia, often of long duration, and perhaps not unlike Mediterranean or Malta fever. The same word is used in Leviticus 26:16 . The ‘consumption’ mentioned in Isaiah 10:22; Isaiah 28:22 AV [Note: Authorized Version.] does not appear to be a specific disease at all. This is followed in Deut. by fever; the same word in Leviticus 26:16 is rendered ‘burning ague ’ by the AV [Note: Authorized Version.] , and the LXX [Note: Septuagint.] translates it by the Greek word for ‘jaundice.’ Its symptoms are given in the passage of Lv.; it may be a sort of malarial fever which occurs in certain parts of Palestine, and is occasionally accompanied by jaundice. This may be the disease alluded to in John 4:26 and Luke 4:38 , both instances at Capernaum. Then comes inflammation ( Deuteronomy 28:22 EV [Note: English Version.] , LXX [Note: Septuagint.] ague ). This may be ague, or even typhoid, which is common in Palestine. Next we have ‘extreme burning’ ( Deuteronomy 28:22 AV [Note: Authorized Version.] , RV [Note: Revised Version.] ‘fiery heat,’ LXX [Note: Septuagint.] ‘irritation’); either some unspecified kind of irritating disease, or erysipelas; but this latter disease is not of frequent occurrence in Palestine. The ‘sword’ ( Deuteronomy 28:22 AV [Note: Authorized Version.] , RV [Note: Revised Version.] ‘drought’) may be a form of disease, or more probably, like the next two words, may refer to a destruction of the earth’s fruits. The same word ‘sword’ in Zechariah 11:17 seems, from the symptoms described, to refer to a wasting paralysis. The descriptions given in Psalms 39:11 , Zechariah 14:12 , Leviticus 26:39 , Ezekiel 24:23; Ezekiel 33:10 , Psalms 38:5 are largely figurative; but the imagery may be taken from an attack of confluent smallpox, with its disfiguring and repulsive effects. It seems highly probable that smallpox was a disease of antiquity; perhaps the sixth plague of Egypt was of this character.

Allusions to pestilence or plague are exceedingly common in the OT. Thus at least four outbreaks took place among the Israelites during their wanderings in the wilderness, viz. Numbers 11:33 (it has been suggested that the quails here mentioned may have come from a plague-stricken district) Numbers 14:37; Numbers 16:46; Numbers 25:9 (in this last case it may have been communicated by the Moabites). For other references to plague, cf. 2 Samuel 24:15 , 2 Chronicles 21:14 , Psalms 91:3; Psalms 91:6 , Jeremiah 21:9; Jeremiah 42:17 , perhaps 2 Kings 19:35 . The bubonic plague was the periodic scourge of Bible lands. It has but a short period of incubation, spreads rapidly and generally, and is very fatal, death ensuing in a large proportion of cases, and nearly always within three days. No precautions against it are prescribed in the Levitical Code, because it was regarded as a special visitation of God. As the plague is not endemic in Palestine, the Jews probably incurred it by mixing with their neighbours. The emerods of 1 Samuel 5:6 were tumours of a definite shape, and may therefore be the buboes of the plague. The tumours appeared somewhere in the lower part of the abdomen. Some have supposed them to be hæmorrhoids, by comparison with the phrase in Psalms 78:66 , but this is doubtful. The same word occurs in Deuteronomy 28:27 .

Of diseases in the digestive organs the case in 2 Chronicles 21:19 is one of chronic dysentery in its worst form. That in Acts 28:8 (AV [Note: Authorized Version.] bloody flux ) is also dysentery, which is very prevalent in Malta. The mention of hæmorrhage in this case shows that it was of the ulcerative or gangrenous type, which is very dangerous.

The results of intemperance are mentioned in Proverbs 23:29 ff., Isaiah 19:14 .

The liver . The Hebrew physicians regarded many disorders as due to an alteration in the bile (cf. Job 16:15 , Proverbs 7:23 , Lamentations 2:11 ). The disorders alluded to in 1 Timothy 5:23 were probably some kind of dyspepsia , apparently producing lack of energy (cf. 1 Timothy 4:13-16 ); the symptoms are often temporarily relieved by the use of alcohol. In Psalms 69:3 allusion is made to the dryness of throat produced by mental emotions of a lowering character; and in Isaiah 16:11 , Jeremiah 4:10 to the flatulent distension of the colon due to the same cause.

Heart. There are few references to physical diseases affecting it. Proverbs 14:30 may be one. Cases of syncope seem to be recorded in Genesis 45:26 , 1 Samuel 4:18; 1 Samuel 28:20 , Daniel 8:27 . The allusions to a ‘broken heart’ in Scripture are always metaphorical, but the theory that our Lord’s death was due to rupture of the heart deserves mention.

Paralysis or palsy . This is a disease of the central nervous system, which comes on rapidly as a rule, and disappears slowly, if at all. Such cases are mentioned in the NT, e.g . Matthew 4:24 , Luke 4:18 , perhaps Acts 9:33 . The case in Matthew 8:6 may have been one of acute spinal meningitis, or some other form of especially painful paralysis. In the case of the withered hand of Matthew 12:10 , Mark 3:1 , Luke 6:8 a complete atrophy of the bones and muscles was probably the cause. The case in Acts 3:2 was possibly of the same nature. Such cases are probably intended also in John 5:3 . The man in John 5:7 can hardly have been suffering from locomotor ataxia , as he could move himself, and his disease had lasted 38 years. Therefore this also was, in all likelihood, a case of withered limbs. The sudden attack mentioned in 1 Kings 13:4 was probably due to sudden hæmorrhage affecting some part of the brain, which may under certain circumstances be only temporary.

Apoplexy. A typical seizure is described in 1 Samuel 25:37 , due to hæmorrhage in the brain produced by excitement, supervening, in this particular instance, on a drinking bout (cf. also 1Ma 9:55 ). The same sort of seizure may be referred to in 2 Samuel 6:7 , Acts 5:6-10 .

Trance is mentioned in Genesis 2:21; Genesis 15:12 . But the cases in 1 Samuel 26:12 , Judges 4:21 , Matthew 8:24 were probably of sleep due to fatigue. Prophetic frenzy is alluded to in Num 24:3-4 , 2 Kings 9:11 (cf. Isaiah 8:18 ). Saul is an interesting psychical study: a man of weak judgment, violent passions, and great susceptibility, eventually succumbing to what seem to be recurring paroxysms of mania, rather than a chronic melancholia. A not uncommon type of monomania seems to be described in Daniel 4:1-37 (the lycanthropy of Nebuchadnezzar ). In the NT various nervous affections are probably included among the instances of demoniac possession, e.g . Luke 11:14 , Matthew 12:22 . In Luke 1:22 , Acts 9:7 are apparently mentioned cases of temporary aphasia due to sudden emotion. (Cf. also Daniel 10:15 .)

Deafness and dumbness. Many of the NT cases of possession by dumb spirits were probably due to some kind of insanity or nervous disease, e.g . Matthew 9:32 , Mark 9:25 . In Mark 7:32 stammering is joined to deafness. Isaiah 28:11; Isaiah 32:4 (cf. Isaiah 33:19 ) probably refer to unintelligible rather than defective speech. Moses’ slowness of speech and tongue (cf. Exodus 4:10 ) was probably only lack of oratorical fluency. Patience with the deaf is recommended in Leviticus 19:14 .

Epilepsy. The case in Matthew 17:15 , Mark 9:18 , Luke 9:38 is of genuine epileptic fits; the usual symptoms are graphically described. Like many epileptics, the patient had been subject to the fits from childhood. The ‘pining away’ mentioned in the Markan account is characteristic of a form of the disease in which the fits recur frequently and cause progressive exhaustion. The word used in Mt. to describe the attack means literally ‘to be moon-struck’; the same word is found in Matthew 4:24 , and an allusion to moon-stroke occurs in Psalms 121:6 . It was a very general belief that epilepsy was in some way connected with the phases of the moon. Such a theory is put forward by Vicary, the physician of Henry VIII., at so late a date as 1577.

Sunstroke. This is mentioned in Psalms 121:6 , Isaiah 49:10 , and cases of apparently genuine siriasis are described in 2 Kings 4:10 and Jdt 8:2 . This seizure is very rapid and painful, accompanied by a great rise in temperature, passing speedily into coma, and resulting as a rule in death within a very short space of time. The cure effected in 2 Kings 4:1-44 was plainly miraculous. Heat syncope , rather than sunstroke, seems to have been the seizure in Jonah’s case ( Jonah 4:8 ). He fainted from the heat, and on recovery was conscious of a severe headache and a feeling of intense prostration.

Dropsy is common in Jerusalem. The cure of a case of dropsy is recorded in Luke 14:2 .

Pulmonary disease as such finds no mention in Scripture. The phrase used in 1 Kings 17:17 , ‘there was no breath left in him,’ is merely the ordinary way of stating that he died.

Gout. This disease is very uncommon among the people of Palestine; and it is not, as a rule, fatal. The disease in his feet from which Asa suffered ( 1 Kings 15:23 , 2 Chronicles 16:12 ) has usually been supposed to be gout, though one authority suggests that it was articular leprosy, and another that it was senile gangrene. The passages quoted give us no clue to the nature of the disease in question, nor do they state that it caused his death. Josephus describes Asa as dying happily in a good old age. The OT records remark only that he suffered from a disease in the feet, which began when he was advanced in years.

Under the heading surgical diseases may be classed the spirit of infirmity , affecting the woman mentioned in Luke 13:11; Luke 13:13 , who, though she could attend the synagogue meetings, was bowed together and unable to lift herself. This was probably a case of senile kyphosis , such as not infrequently occurs with aged women, and sometimes with men, who have spent their lives in agricultural or horticultural labour, which necessitates constant curvature of the body.

Crook-backedness ( Leviticus 21:20 ) disqualified a man for the priesthood. This disease is one which can occur in youth, and is due to caries of the vertebræ. The collections of bones found in Egypt justify the inference that such curvatures must have been fairly common in Egypt.

Fracture of the skull. A case is recorded in Judges 9:53 , where insensibility did not immediately supervene, showing the absence of compression of the brain. In Acts 20:9 fatal compression and probably a broken neck were caused by the accident. The fall in 2 Kings 1:2 was the cause of Ahaziah’s ultimate death.

Lameness. Mephibosheth’s lameness was due to an accident in infancy ( 2 Samuel 4:4 ), which apparently produced some sort of bone disease, necessitating constant dressing, unless the phrase in 2 Samuel 19:24 refers merely to washing. Lameness was a disqualification for the priesthood ( Leviticus 21:18 ); Christ healed many lame people in the Temple ( Matthew 21:14 ) as well as elsewhere. Jacob’s lameness ( Genesis 32:31 ) may also be mentioned.

Congenital malformations. Cf. 2Sa 21:20 , 1 Chronicles 20:6 . The possession of superfluous parts was held to disqualify a man for the priesthood ( Leviticus 21:18 ), as did also dwarfishness ( Leviticus 21:20 ), unless the reference there is to emaciation from disease. The word in Leviticus 21:18 , which is translated ‘that hath a flat nose,’ may refer to the deformity of a hare-lip.

Skin diseases are of common occurrence in the East. The most important of them was leprosy (wh. see). But there are many minor diseases of the skin recognized in Bible enactments under various terms.

Baldness ( Leviticus 13:40-43 ) was not looked upon as causing ceremonial uncleanness, nor apparently was it common; it seems to have been regarded not as a sign of old age, but as the result of a life spent in excessive labour with exposure to the sun (cf. Ezekiel 29:18 ), and so in Isaiah 3:24 it is threatened as a mark of degradation and servitude.

Itch ( Deuteronomy 28:27 ) is probably the parasitic disease due to a small mite which burrows under the skin, and, if neglected, sometimes spreads all over the body; this disease is very easily communicated, and is not uncommon in Syria at the present time. It was a disqualification for the priesthood ( Leviticus 21:20 ).

Scab ( Deuteronomy 28:27 ) or scurvy ( Leviticus 21:20 ) is a kindred disease in which a crust forms on the skin; it is most common on the head, but sometimes spreads all over the body, and is most difficult to cure. ‘Scab’ in Leviticus 21:20 is the tr. [Note: translate or translation.] of a different word, but is probably another form of the same disease (cf. Isaiah 3:17 ).

Scall or scurf of the head and beard ( Leviticus 13:30 ) is another parasitic disease of similar nature.

Freckled spot ( Leviticus 13:39 , RV [Note: Revised Version.] tetter ) may be psoriasis , a non-contagions eruption.

The botch of Egypt ( Deuteronomy 28:27; Deuteronomy 28:35 ). The same word is used in Job 2:7 , Exo 9:9 , 2 Kings 20:7 , Isaiah 38:21 . It is probably a general term for a swelling of the skin. In Exodus 9:10 blains , perhaps pustules containing fluid, are stated to have accompanied the boils . The disease in Deuteronomy 28:35 affected especially the knees and legs. Job’s disease appears to have been one of itching sores or spots all over the body, which disfigured his face ( Job 2:11 ), caused great pain and a feeling of burning ( Job 6:4 ), made his breath fetid ( Job 19:17 ), and were infested with maggots ( Job 7:5 ). Various names for the exact nature of the disease have been suggested, such as elephantiasis, leprosy, smallpox, etc. Some authorities, however, suppose the symptoms to agree better with those or the ‘Biskra button’ or Oriental sore, sometimes called ‘Aleppo sore’ or ‘Baghdad sore,’ which begins with papular spots, which ulcerate, become crusted over, are slow in granulation, and often multiple. This complaint is probably due to a parasite. Lazarus’ sores ( Luke 16:20 ) were probably old varicose ulcers of the leg.

Spot ( Deuteronomy 32:5 , Job 11:15 , Song of Solomon 4:7 ) and blemish ( Leviticus 21:17 , Daniel 1:4 ) seem to be general terms for skin disease. Wen ( Leviticus 22:22 ) means a suppurating sore.

The bloody sweat of our Lord ( Luke 22:44 ) is difficult to explain. Some regard the passage as meaning merely that His sweat dropped, as blood drops from a wound. Instances of bloody sweat have been quoted in comparison, but it seems that none is satisfactorily authenticated.

Poisonous serpents are mentioned in Numbers 21:6 (where they are miraculously cured by the erection of a brass model of a serpent), Deuteronomy 32:33 , Job 20:14-15 , Isaiah 11:8; Isaiah 14:29; Isaiah 30:8; Isaiah 59:5 , Jeremiah 8:17 , Matthew 3:7 (metaphorically, as also in Matthew 12:34; Matthew 23:33 , Luke 3:7 ), Mark 16:18 , Luke 10:19 , Acts 28:3 . There are several poisonous serpents in the desert of the Exodus narrative, whose bites are often fatal; but it has been suggested that the fiery serpents of Numbers 21:6 were really the parasitic worms called guinea-worms, which are not uncommon in the desert region. Scorpion bites are common and often fatal to children in Egypt, but not in Palestine.

Worms ( Acts 12:23 ) is the description of the disease of which Herod died. One authority suggests that it was acute peritonitis set up by the perforation of the bowel by an intestinal worm. Josephus states that Herod suffered from a violent abdominal pain which in a few days proved fatal. Thus it cannot have been a case of phthiriasis . The death of Antiochus Epiphanes ( 2Ma 9:5-9 ) is described as preceded by a violent pain of the bowels; then he was injured by a violent fall, and ‘worms rose up out of his body’ in all probability a case of compound fractures, in which blow-flies laid their eggs and maggots hatched, owing to neglect of the injuries.

The third plague of Egypt (Exodus 8:16 ) is called one of lice , but the margin of the RV [Note: Revised Version.] suggests ‘sand-flies’ or ‘fleas.’ It is possible that they were mosquitoes or sand fleas, the latter of which generate in the dust.

Discharges or issues of a certain nature caused ceremonial impurity; cf. Leviticus 15:2-25 . Some of these were natural ( Deuteronomy 23:10 ), others probably were the result of impure practices, but it is doubtful how much the ancients knew of the physical consequences of vice. Cf., however, Psalms 107:17-18 , Proverbs 2:18; Proverbs 5:11-22; Proverbs 7:23; Proverbs 7:26 .

Blindness is exceedingly common among the natives of Palestine; the words describing this affliction are of frequent occurrence in the Bible, sometimes in the literal, sometimes in the metaphorical, sense. Apparently only two forms of blindness were recognized: (1) that which arose from the ophthalmia so prevalent in Oriental lands, a highly infectious disease, aggravated by sand, sun-glare, and dirt, which damages the organs, and often renders them quite useless; (2) that due to old age, as in the case of Eli ( 1 Samuel 3:2 ), Ahijah ( 1 Kings 14:4 ), Isaac ( Genesis 27:1 ). Cf. also Deuteronomy 34:7 . Blindness was believed to be a visitation from God ( Exodus 4:11 ), it disqualified a man for the priesthood ( Leviticus 21:18 ); but compassion for the blind was prescribed ( Leviticus 19:14 ), and offences against them were accursed ( Deuteronomy 27:18 ). Leah probably suffered from a minor form of ophthalmia ( Genesis 29:17 ). In Leviticus 26:16 we see ophthalmia accompanying malarial fever. The blinding of Elymas in Acts 13:11 may have been hypnotic, as also possibly the blinding of the Syrian soldiers in 2 Kings 6:18 .

The cases of blindness which were cured by our Lord are usually given without special characterization; the two of most interest are that of the man born blind (John 9:1 ), and that of the man whose recovery was gradual ( Mark 8:22 ). In the latter case we do not know whether the man was blind from birth or not; if he was, the stage in which he saw ‘men as trees walking’ would be that in which he had not yet accustomed himself to interpret and understand visual appearances. Our Lord’s cures as described were all miraculous, in the sense that the influence of a unique personality must be postulated in order to explain the cure; but He used various methods to effect or symbolize the cure in various cases.

St. Paul’s blindness (Acts 9:8 ) was probably a temporary amaurosis , such as may be caused by looking at the sun. The ‘scales’ ( Acts 9:18 ) need not necessarily have been material; the words suggest a mere simile. One of the theories as to his ‘ thorn in the flesh ’ is that it was a permanent ‘weakness of eye’ remaining after his experience (cf. Galatians 4:15 ). But other explanations have been suggested. The blindness of Tobit and its cure may also be mentioned ( Tob 2:10; Tob 11:11 ); the remedy there adopted has a parallel in Pliny ( HN xxxii. 24). Eye-salve is recommended in Revelation 3:18 , but the context is metaphorical.

Old age. Under this heading should be mentioned the famous passage in Ecclesiastes 12:1-14 , where the failure of powers consequent on growing years is described in language of poetic imagery.

Child-birth. The special cases of child-bearing which are mentioned in the Bible are mostly quoted to illustrate the ‘sorrow’ of conception, which was regarded as the penalty of Eve’s transgression ( Genesis 3:16 ). There are two cases of twins, that of Esau and Jacob ( Genesis 25:22 ), and that of Perez and Zerah ( Genesis 38:29 ff.). The latter was ‘a case of spontaneous evolution with perineal laceration, probably fatal to the mother.’ Rachel’s case ( Genesis 35:18 ) was one of fatal dystocia , and the phrase in Genesis 31:35 may hint at some long-standing delicacy. Phinehas’ wife ( 1 Samuel 4:19 ) was taken in premature labour, caused by shock, and proving fatal. Sarah ( Genesis 21:2 ), Manoah’s wife ( Judges 13:24 ), Hannah ( 1 Samuel 1:20 ), the Shunammite woman ( 2 Kings 4:17 ), and Elisabeth ( Luke 1:67 ) are instances of uniparæ at a late period. Barrenness was regarded as a Divine judgment ( Genesis 20:18; Genesis 30:2 ), and the forked root of the mandrake was used as a charm against it ( Genesis 30:10 ); fertility was correspondingly regarded as a proof of Divine favour ( 1 Samuel 2:5 , Psalms 113:9 ), and miscarriage is invoked as a token of God’s displeasure in Hosea 9:14 . The attendants at birth were women ( Genesis 35:17 , Exodus 1:15 , midwives ). The mother was placed in a kneeling posture, leaning on somebody’s knees ( Genesis 30:3 ), or on a labour-stool, if such be the meaning of the difficult passage in Exodus 1:10 . After child-birth the mother was unclean for 7 days in the case of a male, for 14 days in the case of a female, child. After this she continued in a state of modified uncleanness for 33 or 66 days, according as the child was boy or girl, during which period she was not allowed to enter the Temple. The reason for the different lengths of the two periods was that the lochia was supposed to last longer in the case of a female child. Nursing continued for 2 or 3 years ( 2Ma 7:27 ), and in 1 Kings 11:20 a child is taken by a relative to wean.

The legislation for the menstrual period and for menorrhagia is given in Leviticus 15:19 ff. A rigid purification was prescribed, including everything which the woman had touched, and everybody who touched her or any of those things (see Clean and Unclean). Menorrhagia ( EV [Note: English Version.] issue of blood ) was considered peculiarly impossible of treatment ( Matthew 9:20 , Mark 5:26 , Luke 8:43 ), and magical means were resorted to for its cure. In Ezekiel 16:4 Is a description of an infant with undivided umbilical cord, neither washed nor dressed. The skin of Infants was usually dressed with salt to make it firm. The metaphorical use of terms derived from child-labour is exceedingly common in the Bible.

Infantile diseases seem to have been very severe in Palestine in Bible times, as at the present day. We hear of sick children in 2 Samuel 12:15 , 1 Kings 17:17 , and Christ healed many children.

Among cases of unspecified diseases may be mentioned those of Abijah (1 Kings 14:1 ), Benhadad ( 2 Kings 8:7 ), Elisha ( 2 Kings 13:14 ), Joash ( 2 Chronicles 24:25 ), Lazarus ( John 11:1 ), Dorcas ( Acts 9:37 ), Epaphroditus ( Philippians 2:27 ), Trophimus ( 2 Timothy 4:20 ).

4. Methods of treatment . The Bible gives us very few references on this point. We hear of washing ( 2 Kings 5:10 ); diet perhaps ( Luke 8:55 ); the application of saliva ( John 9:6 ); unction ( James 5:14 ); the binding of wounds and the application of soothing ointment ( Isaiah 1:5 ); the use of oil and wine for wounds ( Luke 10:34 ); a plaster of figs for a boil ( Isaiah 38:21 ); animal heat by contact ( 1Ki 1:2; 1 Kings 17:21 , 2 Kings 4:34 ).

Balm of Gilead or balm is mentioned in Genesis 37:25; Genesis 43:11 , Jeremiah 8:22; Jeremiah 46:11; Jeremiah 51:8 , Ezekiel 27:17 . It appears to be regarded as a sedative application, and was probably an aromatic gum or spice (see art. Balm).

Mandrakes ( Mandragora officinalis ) were used as a stimulant to conception ( Genesis 30:16 ), and the fruit as a medicine. Mint ( Mentha silvestris ), anise ( Anethum graveolens ), cummin ( Cuminum sativum ) were used as carminatives; salt for hardening the skin, nitre ( Jeremiah 2:22 ) to cleanse it. The caper-berry ( Capparis spinosa ) is mentioned in Ecclesiastes 12:5; it was regarded as an aphrodisiac. The wine offered to Christ at His crucifixion was probably intended as a narcotic ( Matthew 27:34; Matthew 27:48 , Mark 15:23; Mark 15:36 , Luke 23:3 b, John 19:29 ). Most of the remedies were dietary in the Jewish as in the Egyptian pharmacopœia, e.g . meal, milk, vinegar, wine, water, almonds, figs, raisins, pomegranates, honey, etc.

We have a mention of amulets in Isaiah 3:20 and perhaps Genesis 35:4 . The apothecary’s art is mentioned in Exodus 30:25-35; Exodus 37:29 , Ecclesiastes 10:1 , 2 Chronicles 16:14 , Nehemiah 3:8 , Sir 38:8; Sir 49:1 . But in all these passages the reference is to makers of perfumes rather than compounders of medicines. It is probable that medicines were compounded by those who prescribed them.

Hygienic enactments dealing with food, sanitation, and infectious diseases are common in the Levitical Code. With regard to food, herbivorous ruminant animals were permitted to be eaten; all true fishes also were allowed; but birds which lived on animal food were forbidden, and all invertebrates except locusts. The fat and the blood of animals were prohibited as food, and regulations were given for the inspection of animals slaughtered for eating. The origin, however, of many of these regulations probably lies in primitive taboo laws (see Clean and Unclean). Fruits could not be used for food until the tree had been planted for four years ( Leviticus 19:23-25 ). The provisions repeated in Exodus 12:19; Exodus 13:7 , Deuteronomy 16:3 for the periodic destruction of leaven, whatever their historical origin, must have been of service for the maintenance of pure bread-stuffs.

The agricultural sanitary laws are directed chiefly to prohibit the mixing of different species, e.g . the sowing of different seeds in a field at the same time, the cross-grafting of fruit-trees, the cross-breeding or yoking together of dissimilar cattle. And periodic rest for man and beast was prescribed. No mixture of linen and woollen materials in garments was permitted ( Leviticus 19:19 , Deuteronomy 22:11 ), as such garments cannot be so easily or thoroughly cleansed as those of one material. There were also various regulations as to domestic sanitation; thus the covering with earth of excreta and of blood was ordered; possibly the fires of the Valley of Hinnom were intended to consume the offal of the city. Houses were to be built with parapets to prevent accident ( Deuteronomy 22:8 ). Isolation in suspected cases of Infectious disease was prescribed ( Leviticus 13:4 ), and the washing of body and clothes ( Numbers 19:11 ) was obligatory on those who had touched unclean things.

Uncleanness was in many cases merely ceremonial in nature. But the regulations must often have served to diminish the chances of propagating real infection. Various grades of uncleanness are recognized in the Talmud, and different periods of lustration and isolation were ordained, in accordance with the different grade of uncleanness contracted.

5. Surgical instruments . A flint knife was used for circumcision ( Joshua 5:8 ), but in later times steel knives were employed. An awl for boring the ear is mentioned in Exodus 21:8 .

The most important surgical operation was the performance of circumcision . Its original idea may have been that of imposing a tribal mark on the infant (unless it was at first performed in early manhood and subsequently transferred to the time of infancy); but it came to be regarded as an operation of purification. The exclusion of eunuchs from the service of God ( Deuteronomy 23:1 ) may have been due to the dread of importing heathen rites into Israel. But they were important officials in the time of the kingdom, as in Oriental courts generally ( 1 Kings 22:9 , 2 Kings 8:6; 2 Kings 9:32; 2 Kings 24:16 , Jeremiah 29:2; Jeremiah 34:19; Jeremiah 38:7; Jeremiah 41:16 ), and there were eunucbs at the court of the Herods, as elsewhere (cf. Acts 8:27 ). The passage in Isaiah 56:4 implies that eunuchs were then under no special religious disability; cf. also our Lord’s reference in Matthew 19:12 .

Of course we must admit that in many cases the use of remedies, the sanitary laws, the prescriptions as to food, the regulations as to uncleanness, and so forth, did not necessarily originate in any theory as to their value for the preservation of public health. Primitive taboo customs, folk-lore, magic, superstition, are no doubt responsible for the existence of much that has been here placed under the heading of medicine. And it is quite likely, too, that up to a late period the popular Jewish view of the majority of these rules and customs was enlightened by no very clear conception of their hygienic value. The more educated minds of the nation may possibly in time have come to see that enactments which had originated in crude or mistaken notions of religion might yet be preserved, and valued as important precautions for the prevention of disease and its cure. But it may be doubted whether, even in late times, the vulgar opinion about them was at all scientific. At the same time, it is necessary to recognize that many of the laws, begotten, perhaps, of primitive superstition, did nevertheless serve a medical purpose, and so may without untruthfulness be included in a treatment of Bible medicine.

A. W. F. Blunt.

Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Medicine'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. 1909.

Search for…
Enter query in the box below:
Choose a letter to browse:
Next Entry