28 June 2010

Sicko! Medicine and Health in Bible Times

By Timothy S. Wilkinson

    Ancient Egypt, famous to this day for its advances in architecture, astronomy, mathematics and art has no such claim in the field of medicine. In fact, ancient Middle Eastern cultures in general shared a basic view of disease: it was caused by some form of demonic possession. Whips, masks, and statuettes were used to frighten these spirits away.
                In Babylon (present day Iraq), doctors would remove the liver of a sheep and consult it to diagnose their patient’s disease; clay models of sheep’s livers have been found with diagrams explaining what the doctor should look for. Once the malevolent spirit had been identified, the physician/priest would perform an exorcism and then prescribe some sort of healing regimen to help the sufferer’s body recover from the damage the spirit had caused to his or her body.
                Although at times this regimen included ingredients now known to have some medicinal value—caper, mandrake, and garlic were common—records from the period make it clear that they were valued for the magical, rather than their medical, properties.  An ostraca from around 2000 B.C.E. instructs doctors to “pulverize…the dried vine, pine tree, and plum tree; pour beer over it, rub with oil, fasten as a poultice.”
                The Code of Hammurabi outlines some laws regarding medicine. If, for example, a doctor is operating on a patient’s eye using a copper lancet and the patient is blinded, then the doctor’s eye was also put out with the same copper lancet.
                As mentioned, Egypt did not build on the practice of the early Mesopotamians. We know many details of their medical practices from the Edwin Smith Surgical Papyrus, the Papyrus Ebers, and other papyri from medical schools.
Egyptians, too, believed healing to be a spiritual process, and relied on the gods of healing: Imhotep, Apis, and Isis. Unfortunately, the “medicines” they developed to aid this process were no benefit to their patients. Ground donkey teeth, worm’s blood, and other outlandish items were often prescribed. The Papyrus Ebers has a recipe for a poultice to treat skin conditions: mix human excrement with fresh milk and apply it to the wound after the scab has fallen off. Equally effective was the remedy for drawing out splinters: cook worms’ blood in oil; cook a mole in oil; crush the mole with the worm’s blood and mix in ass’s dung and fresh milk. Apply liberally to the wound.
It is these bizarre practices that make the medicinal practices of the ancient Israelites so striking. The Torah forbade them from touching corpses, so they could make no post-mortem examinations to develop their knowledge of anatomy. They believed in a connection between good health and a life of devotion to God.  But their practices indicate a thorough understanding of human health unequalled by any civilization of the time.
Leviticus chapter 11 speaks of disease being spread by insects, rodents, and even contaminated water—something that would have made no sense to people unfamiliar with the concept of germs. It ran contrary to the beliefs of every other culture at the time.
A person who did (inadvertently) touch a dead body was required to wash thoroughly afterward—something not widely practiced before the last century. Deuteronomy chapter 23 mandates the safe disposal of sewage, protecting the people against fly-borne salmonellosis, shigellosis, typhoid, and other diseases that continue to kill thousands of people every year who do not use such precautions.
In fact, personal and social hygiene were emphasized in all aspects of life, making the Israelites unique among all Bronze Age people. Leviticus chapter 11 details a number of sanitation laws, all of which make excellent medical sense.
The nations that lived around Israel in Canaan practiced incest, bestiality, and orgies as part of their worship—hardly healthy practices physically or psychologically. Laws regarding sexual conduct and forbidding intermarriage with those who practiced such things no doubt protected the Israelites from sexually transmitted diseases.
Circumcision of newborn boys was to be done on the 8th day of the child’s life. Only in the past century have doctors discovered that the blood clotting element Vitamin K only reaches an adequate level by the 8th day, and that the clotting agent prothrombin is typically higher on the 8th day than on any other day of the child’s life.
The Sabbath law required all people to take a day every week for rest, relaxation and time with family and friends. While the Bible does not make any direct connection between observing the Sabbath and physical health, it is inarguably psychologically beneficial.
Poultices of dried figs and oil were used to treat boils—and are still used today to good effect. Oil and wine were poured onto wounds, wine was mixed with myrrh and other natural narcotics as a painkiller, and “balm of gilead” (likely an aromatic excretion from an evergreen tree) was effective in soothing irritated skin.
By Isaiah’s time, the Israelites had developed some forms of surgery. Skulls and diagrams found in the area of Jerusalem show clear evidence of trepanning: removing a section of bone from the skull to relieve pressure on the brain. This could be life-saving—although the number of skulls found with holes still in them seem to indicate the procedure was rarely successful. (Patients who healed would have the piece of skull replaced and the skin sewn back over it).
The conclusion many have drawn from such unusual medical practices (for the time) is that the Israelites had access to medical, biological, and physiological knowledge far ahead of their time.

For more information about life in Bible times, check out my novels Prophet of Israel and Judge of Israel, available from www.timothywilkinson.net.

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