Health and Healthcare in Ancient Israel

With Tim Harmon (MABTS student)

It’s been a fact of life since the Fall: we all get sick. Whether due to our phobias or our finances, we’d all like to avoid the doctor’s office if we can help it. But the next time we find ourselves grumbling over our co-pay, it’s worth considering how our current healthcare options compare to those available in ancient Israel.

What Ails You? 

Information is scarce concerning the specific sicknesses that plagued the Israelites. However, this is not due to a lack of illness, but rather a lack of contemporary understanding of sickness in general, along with an absence of clear descriptions of the various ailments.  The words that are typically used to describe infirmity in the Old Testament have somewhat wide ranges of meaning. For example, most of these come from a common root, chalah, which can be used for any number of maladies (2 Kings 8:8-9; Exod. 23:25; Deut. 28:59). While it is not always so easy to tell the exact illness being referred to, there are a number of fairly common infirmities that are identified, such as skin diseases, infertility, blindness, deafness, muteness, paralysis, and mental disorders. Injuries were also a reality for the ancient Israelites, and they were aware that untreated wounds could get infected (Ps. 38:5).

Cleanliness Is Next To…

Of course, preventing the onset of sickness is always preferable to treating the presence of it. This is where hygiene comes in. In the Ancient Near East, unsanitary conditions often led to polluted water, and the possibly of parasites. While the only reference to a parasite in the Bible is to the flea (1 Sam. 24:14), archaeological excavations have uncovered latrines where human parasites have been discovered in fossilized excrements, and lice nits have been found in the teeth of unearthed hair combs. The environmental cleanliness of the city was particularly problematic, as refuse from food and polluted water was thrown out into the open in the city streets (2 Sam. 22:43). In most cases, there were no outhouses or toilets.

No, the Israelites did not have disinfectant hand gel. However, we do find a number of biblical commands and instructions that helped improve the hygiene of the people. While these were primarily given for the sake of ritual purity, there were hygienic benefits nonetheless. For example: priests were commanded to take ceremonial baths (Lev. 16:4); those cured from skin diseases were required to bathe themselves (Lev. 14:8-9); appendages were washed before ceremonial functions (Exod. 30:19); feet were washed as a sign of hospitality (Gen. 18:4); and clothes were cleaned before coming before the Lord (Exod. 19:10).

Is There A Doctor In The House?

When the Old Testament refers to physicians, it generally does not do so in positive terms (2 Chron. 16:12; Job 13:4). Regarding treatment for illness, there are few mentions of remedies or medicines. Examples of ministrations that are identified include a concoction of figs that was to be boiled (2 Kings 20:7), and some sort of balm (Jeremiah 8:22). Oils were used to prevent the skin from cracking under the intense heat of the sun, and aromatic oils were used as fumigants and deodorants. Washing was done with detergents derived from plants. The Bible seems to mention different kinds of soaps, such as natron, lye, and alkali (Jer. 2:22; Job 9:30). Wounds from accidents or battle were bandaged, pressed, and softened with oil (1 Kings 20:38; Isa. 1:6).

The Great Physician

While there may be scant biblical data concerning professional medical treatment in ancient Israel, there is ample evidence that the God of the Bible is capable and often willing to provide physical healing (Psa. 30:2; 38:3; Isa. 38:1-5). Still, God’s sovereignty is also affirmed in this, and healing is never an automatic quid pro quo for a prayer. Even when God does intervene to bring physical healing, we recognize that life in this fallen world must eventually come to an end. In the final analysis, our hope is not in the avoidance of physical illness, but in God’s healing of humanity’s greatest ailment – sin, and the life eternal that awaits those who have put their faith in Christ (Isa. 53:5).

About Jan Verbruggen

Dr. Jan Verbruggen is a Professor of Old Testament Language and Literature at Western Seminary. He originally came from Belgium, where he taught for 6 years at the Evangelische Theologische Faculteit, Heverlee and ministered as a pastor for 3 years. He has published a number of articles in Dutch at various magazines and journals in the Netherlands and Belgium. Jan Verbruggen serves as an elder at Hinson Memorial Baptist Church, Portland Oregon. His most recent publication is "Deuteronomium" (commentary on Deuteronomy in Dutch), Groen, Heerenveen, 2008.