DISEASES AND TREATMENT
The Scriptures frequently refer to illness, an unhealthy condition of the body or the mind, also to spiritual sickness, or the state of being figuratively diseased. While the Bible was not written primarily as a book of instruction on medical or other forms of treatment for various maladies, the information it presents on such matters is scientifically accurate. Significantly, it shows how to overcome spiritual sickness.
Disease is a consequence of the imperfection resulting in death that was passed on to the human race by the sinner Adam. (Ge 3:17-19; Ro 5:12) Yet, Jehovah directly “touched Pharaoh and his household with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram’s wife.” (Ge 12:17) God was responsible for the “boils with blisters” that broke out on man and beast during the sixth blow he inflicted upon ancient Egypt. (Ex 9:8-11) He struck presumptuous Miriam with leprosy (Nu 12:9-15), dealt a blow to the illegitimate child of David and Bath-sheba so that it took sick and eventually died (2Sa 12:15-18), and “gave a pestilence in Israel” in David’s day (2Sa 24:15). All these acts of God were in upholding his name and law, and for the protection, liberation, or fatherly disciplining of his chosen people.
However, by Jehovah’s permission, Satan “struck Job with a malignant boil from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head.” (Job 2:6, 7) This allowed Job to stand as an example for God’s people in the matter of keeping integrity. Job was later healed by God, and his life was extended 140 years for his faithfulness. (Job 42:10, 16) Demons were sometimes responsible for infirmities, as in the case of a demon-possessed blind and speechless man cured by Jesus Christ. (Mt 12:22) But the Scriptures differentiate between normal maladies and those caused by demon possession.—Mt 4:24; Mr 1:32-34; Ac 5:16; see DEMON POSSESSION.
Failure to obey God’s Word, as in matters involving sexual morality, can lead to illness and even death. (Pr 7:21-27) The Israelites were warned that if they disobeyed Jehovah, he would strike them with various diseases.—De 28:58-61.
The Bible mentions a number of diseases and afflictions. For example, the Israelites, if disobedient, would suffer with such disorders as tuberculosis, boils, piles, eczema, and madness. (De 28:22, 27, 28, 35) The Law furnished information on diagnosing and handling cases of leprosy. (Le chaps 13, 14) A descendant of Aaron who had ringworm was barred from performing priestly functions, and an animal with it was unacceptable for sacrifice. (Le 21:17, 20; 22:22) Jesus Christ, by God’s power, cured congenital blindness (Joh 9:1-7), deafness (Lu 7:22), dropsy (Lu 14:1-4), leprosy (Lu 5:12, 13), epilepsy, paralysis, and other diseases and infirmities (Mt 4:23, 24). On Malta, Paul healed the father of Publius, who was “distressed with fever and dysentery.”—Ac 28:1-8.
Present-day researchers sometimes endeavor to be more specific than the Bible in describing the symptoms and the maladies it mentions, but often their views vary considerably. However, since the Bible is the inspired Word of God, when its writers named a disease they were accurate. Yet at times they left afflictions unnamed. For instance, the Bible does not name the sicknesses that took the lives of the two boys thereafter restored to life by Jehovah through Elijah and Elisha. (1Ki 17:17-24; 2Ki 4:17-37) It does not reveal the nature of “the sickness with which [Elisha] was to die” (2Ki 13:14, 20) or disclose the illness that resulted in the death of Lazarus.—Joh 11:1-4.
Treatment in Ancient Times. Physicians, practitioners of medicine or various healing arts, were common in ancient Israel and other Biblical lands. In Egypt “the physicians embalmed Israel,” deceased Jacob. (Ge 50:1-3) The disciple Luke is called “the beloved physician.” (Col 4:14) Mark tells us of a woman who was “subject to a flow of blood twelve years” and who “had been put to many pains by many physicians and had spent all her resources and had not been benefited but, rather, had got worse.”—Mr 5:25-29.
Hebrew physicians apparently used some herbs and perhaps certain dietetic remedies. ‘Balsam of Gilead,’ a scented oil obtained from plants in ancient Gilead, was sometimes applied to wounds, perhaps to serve antiseptic purposes or to produce a soothing effect and lessen pain. (Jer 46:11; 51:8) The use of some leaves for medicinal purposes seems to be indicated. (Eze 47:12; Re 22:1, 2) Apparently poultices were used. (2Ki 20:7; Isa 38:21) Oil was sometimes applied to soften wounds and bruises (Isa 1:6), both oil and wine at times being applied to wounds. (Lu 10:34) Moderate drinking of wine was occasionally recommended for its cheering effect and for its medicinal properties.—Pr 31:6; 1Ti 5:23.
Medicine and surgery were practiced by the ancient Egyptians, about whom the historian Herodotus wrote (II, 84): “The practice of medicine is so divided among them, that each physician is a healer of one disease and no more. All the country is full of physicians, some of the eye, some of the teeth, some of what pertains to the belly, and some of the hidden diseases.”
In Egypt surgical techniques included cauterization to control hemorrhage, and elevating a fragment of bone that might be pressing against a person’s brain in cases of skull fracture. Splints were used for broken bones, some mummies even having been discovered with splints made of tree bark fastened with bandages. (Compare Eze 30:20, 21.) That early Babylon had some surgeons is indicated in the Code of Hammurabi, which set certain fees of physicians and made references to “a bronze operating knife.”
Dentistry was practiced in Phoenicia. One specimen of dental work found involved the use of fine gold wire to bind together six teeth in the lower jaw. In another, a gold wire prosthesis served to “bridge in” teeth taken from another person.
Influence of Magic and of False Religion. Concerning Egypt’s physicians and their remedies, The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia (Vol. IV, p. 2393) states: “From the ancient medical papyri which have been preserved, the largest of which is the Papyrus Ebers, we know that the medical knowledge of these physicians was purely empirical, largely magical and wholly unscientific. In spite of their ample opportunities they knew next to nothing of human anatomy, their descriptions of diseases are hopelessly crude, and three-fourths of the hundreds of prescriptions in the papyri are wholly inert. Even their art of embalming was so imperfect that few of their mummies would have remained in any other climate than that of Egypt.”—Edited by J. Orr, 1960.
French physician and scholar Georges Roux (in his book Ancient Iraq, 1964, pp. 305-309) states: “The diagnosis and prognosis of Mesopotamian physicians were a mixture of superstition and accurate observation.” There were trained professional physicians who believed that most diseases had a supernatural origin but who also considered other causes, such as contagion, food, and drink. The physician sometimes referred patients to a diviner, the baru-priest, who sought to uncover the concealed sin responsible for a malady. Or, the physician sent the sufferer to the ashipu-priest, who employed incantations and magical rites to exorcise demons. Roux observes: “The physicians of Mesopotamia, like her astronomers, founded their art upon metaphysical doctrines and thereby closed the door to a fruitful quest for rational explanations.”
The Babylonians regarded Ea as the principal god of healing. As a protection against evil spirits, they wore objects such as amulets and charms. The Greeks thought Hygeia was the goddess guarding health, and physicians in ancient Greece drew inspiration from Asclepius (Asklepios, Aesculapius). The Romans associated certain deities with the curing of particular afflictions. For example, for fevers there was Febris. Interestingly, a staff with a single snake wound around it was a symbol associated with the Greek god Asclepius. (PICTURE, Vol. 2, p. 530) The somewhat similar caduceus, a winged staff with intertwined serpents, which is a medical emblem, is a copy of the staff shown in Roman art as being carried by the god Mercury.
Concerning ancient pathological concepts in general, The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (Vol. 1, p. 847) states: “Among primitive races, disease was either regarded as the result of hostile magic gaining a hold upon a person, or else its incidence was ascribed to the violation of a taboo. In either event a background of magic, sorcery, and witchcraft was presupposed where cases of intractable sickness were encountered, and such remedial measures as were undertaken inevitably involved the shaman, or medicine man. It was his function to divine the supernatural cause of the disease, and attempt to banish it by the use of spells, charms, drugs, and incantations.”—Edited by G. Buttrick, 1962.
The Scriptures show that Satan afflicted Job (Job 2:7) and that demon possession has occasionally been linked with disease. (Mt 17:14-18) So the ancient pagans had a basis for associating at least some illness with demon possession. But, unlike them, never did faithful Hebrew priests and physicians resort to magic in an attempt to effect cures. (De 18:9-13) No magical incantations were uttered by Jesus Christ or his true followers, even when expelling demons in effecting cures. Upon embracing Christianity, onetime practicers of magic abandoned such demonistic activities, and certainly a Christian physician would neither employ occultism nor send a patient to a practicer of magic.—Ac 19:18, 19.
Accuracy of Scriptural Concepts. Regarding Hippocrates, a Greek physician of the fifth and fourth centuries B.C.E. who has become known as “the father of modern medicine,” it is said: “He had no connection with the temple hospitals of his time, which were controlled by the priests of Asclepius, the god of healing.” (The World Book Encyclopedia, 1987, Vol. 9, p. 227) Hippocrates was virtually contemporaneous with Malachi, but much that the Bible says about diseases was written by Moses about a thousand years earlier. Yet, significantly, it has been said: “The best informed medical researchers now doing the best work are arriving at the conclusion that the Bible is a very accurate scientific book. . . . The facts of life, diagnosis, treatment, and preventive medicine as given in the Bible are far more advanced and reliable than the theories of Hippocrates, many still unproven, and some found to be grossly inaccurate.”—Dr. H. O. Philips, in a letter to The AMA [American Medical Association] News, published in its issue of July 10, 1967.
Concerning the Christian physician Luke, who wrote a Gospel and the book of Acts, Dr. C. Truman Davis stated: “Where medical description is given, it is meticulously accurate. Luke uses a total of twenty-three Greek technical words found in Hippocrates, Galen and other medical writings of the period.”—Arizona Medicine, March 1966, “Medicine and the Bible,” p. 177.
Health benefits often resulted from observance of the Law. For instance, it required that at a military encampment human excrement be covered over (De 23:9-14), thus providing considerable protection from fly-borne infectious diseases such as dysentery and typhoid fever. Contamination of food and water was guarded against, the Law specifying that anything upon which an “unclean” creature fell in its death was rendered unclean and requiring that certain measures be taken, including the smashing of an earthenware vessel thus contaminated.—Le 11:32-38.
Significantly, it has been stated: “Prophylactic considerations were basic to this legislation, which when followed would go far toward preventing the incidence of food-borne polioencephalitis, the enteric fevers, food poisoning, and the parasitic worms. Insistence on the safeguarding of a clean supply of water was the most effective means of forestalling the rise and dissemination of diseases such as amoebiasis, the fevers of the enteric group, cholera, bilharziasis, and spirochetal jaundice. These prophylactic measures, which constitute a fundamental part of any system of public health, were of particular importance for the welfare of a nation living under primitive conditions in a subtropical region of the earth.”—The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, edited by G. Buttrick, 1962, Vol. 2, pp. 544, 545.
In his book The Bible and Modern Medicine, A. Rendle Short, M.D., pointed out that public sanitary law existed, if at all, only in elementary form among nations that surrounded ancient Israel, and stated: “It is the more surprising therefore that in a book like the Bible, alleged to be unscientific, there should be a sanitary code at all, and equally surprising that a nation just escaped from slavery, frequently overrun by enemies and carried away into captivity from time to time, should have on its statute books so wise and reasonable a code of rules of health. This has been recognized by good authorities, even those with no great interest in the religious aspect of the Bible.”—London, 1953, p. 37.
According to the Law, the hare and the pig were among animals the Israelites were not permitted to eat. (Le 11:4-8) Regarding this, Dr. Short states: “True, we eat the pig, the rabbit and the hare, but these animals are liable to parasitic infections and are safe only if the food is well cooked. The pig is an unclean feeder, and harbours two worms, trichina and a tape worm, which may be passed on to man. The danger is minimal under present conditions in this country, but it would have been far otherwise in Palestine of old, and such food was better avoided.”—The Bible and Modern Medicine, pp. 40, 41.
Adherence to Jehovah’s righteous requirements as to sexual morality also had a good effect on the Israelites spiritually, mentally, and physically. (Ex 20:14; Le 18) Healthful benefits are similarly enjoyed by Christians who maintain moral cleanness. (Mt 5:27, 28; 1Co 6:9-11; Re 21:8) Observing the Bible’s high moral standards affords protection from sexually transmitted diseases.
Paul recommended that Timothy take a little wine for the sake of his stomach and his frequent cases of sickness. (1Ti 5:23) That wine has medicinal properties is confirmed by present-day research. Dr. Salvatore P. Lucia, Professor of Medicine, University of California School of Medicine, has stated: “Wine is widely used in the treatment of diseases of the digestive system. . . . The tannin content and the mildly antiseptic properties of wine make it valuable in the treatment of intestinal colic, mucous colitis, spastic constipation, diarrhea and many infectious diseases of the gastrointestinal tract.” (Wine as Food and Medicine, 1954, p. 58) Of course, Paul suggested that Timothy “use a little wine,” not much wine, and the Bible condemns drunkenness.—Pr 23:20; see DRUNKENNESS.
The Scriptures recognize the psychosomatic principle, though only in relatively recent times have medical researchers in general become aware that there is some connection between pathological conditions in the body and a person’s emotional state. Proverbs 17:22 states: “A heart that is joyful does good as a curer, but a spirit that is stricken makes the bones dry.” Such emotions as envy, fear, greed, hate, and selfish ambition are injurious, whereas good and sometimes remedial effects are produced through cultivating and displaying love, joy, peace, long-suffering, kindness, goodness, faith, mildness, and self-control, the fruitage of God’s spirit. (Ga 5:22, 23) The Scriptures do not, of course, classify all illness as psychosomatic, nor do they rule out as objectionable all consulting of and treatment by physicians. Paul called the faithful Christian Luke “the beloved physician.”—Col 4:14.
Quarantine. According to the Law, a person who had or was suspected of having a communicable disease was quarantined, that is, kept away from others or isolated for a time. Seven-day periods of quarantine were imposed in tests for leprosy in the case of persons, garments, and other items, or houses. (Le 13:1-59; 14:38, 46) Also, a person was rendered unclean for seven days as a result of touching a human corpse. (Nu 19:11-13) Though the Scriptures do not say that the latter regulation was given for health reasons, some protection was thus afforded other individuals if the corpse was that of a person who had died of an infectious disease.
Figurative Application. Judah and Jerusalem became spiritually sick because of their sinfulness. (Isa 1:1, 4-6) Although Jerusalem’s religious leaders tried vainly to heal the breakdown of the people, falsely saying there was peace (Jer 6:13, 14), they were unable to avert the city’s destruction in 607 B.C.E. But Jehovah promised to effect the recuperation of Zion, or Jerusalem (Jer 30:12-17; 33:6-9), a healing realized with the return of the Jewish remnant to their homeland in 537 B.C.E.
Jesus Christ recognized the spiritually sick state of sinners and sought to turn them to Jehovah for spiritual healing. Hence, when criticized for eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners, Jesus said: “Those who are healthy do not need a physician, but those who are ailing do. I have come to call, not righteous persons, but sinners to repentance.”—Lu 5:29-32.
Treatment of spiritual sickness experienced by a member of the Christian congregation is considered at James 5:13-20. The context, which contrasts being sick with being in good spirits, shows that James was dealing, not with physical illness, but with spiritual sickness. Concerning remedial steps and their effectiveness, James wrote: “Is there anyone [spiritually] sick among you? Let him call the older men [the elders] of the congregation to him, and let them pray over him [so he can hear the prayer and show he agrees by saying “Amen”], greasing him with oil [encouraging him with comforting, soothing instruction from God’s Word, to restore him to unity with the congregation (Ps 133:1, 2; 141:5)] in the name of Jehovah [with faithfulness to God and according to His purpose]. And the prayer of faith [offered by the older men on behalf of the spiritually ailing person] will make the indisposed one [spiritually] well, and Jehovah will raise him up [as out of despondency and a feeling of being abandoned by God, Jehovah strengthening him to go in the way of truth and righteousness (Php 4:13)]. Also, if he has committed sins, it will be forgiven him [by Jehovah (Ps 32:5; 103:10-14), if the individual responds favorably to the prayers and the reproof, correction, and exhortation from Jehovah’s Word given to him by the older men, and he repentantly turns around and goes in the right way (Ps 119:9-16)].”
Coping With Illness. Sickness is a calamity that may befall a person even if he is materially rich. (Ec 5:16, 17; compare Mt 16:26.) Some individuals have delicious food in abundance but are unable to enjoy it because of some stomach or bowel disorder. (Ec 6:1, 2) Jesus Christ’s spiritual brothers were also spoken of as being physically sick at times. (Mt 25:39, 40) Physical sickness was experienced by such Christians as Epaphroditus, Timothy, and Trophimus (Php 2:25-30; 1Ti 5:23; 2Ti 4:20), but the Bible reports no miraculous apostolic healing of these Christian men.
Nevertheless, when one of God’s servants is physically ill, it is proper for him to pray to Jehovah for the fortitude needed to bear his malady and for spiritual strength to maintain integrity during this period of weakness in the flesh. “Jehovah himself will sustain [such a person] upon a divan of illness.”—Ps 41:1-3; see also 1Ki 8:37-40.
Jehovah can remove sicknesses. (Ex 15:26; 23:25; De 7:15) Isaiah wrote of a time when “no resident will say: ‘I am sick’” (Isa 33:24) and about spiritual healing of the blind, deaf, lame, and speechless, these prophecies also giving promise of physical cure. (Isa 35:5, 6) Jesus Christ, when on earth, accomplished both physical and spiritual healing of ailing ones by fulfilling the Messianic prophecy, “He himself took our sicknesses and carried our diseases.” (Mt 8:14-17; Isa 53:4) The basis for these cures was the sacrifice of his human life, which would be the climax of the course he had been following ever since God’s spirit came upon him at the Jordan River in 29 C.E. Christians thus have a basis for hope and abundant proof that through the resurrected Jesus Christ and by means of God’s Kingdom, obedient mankind will receive, not merely temporary treatment of disease, but permanent release from sin, disease, and death traceable to Adam. For this all praise is due Jehovah, identified by David as the one “who is healing all your maladies.”—Ps 103:1-3; Re 21:1-5.