Wednesday, June 17, 2015

1700 B.C.: Hebrew Bible influences medicine

The Bible only has a few vague descriptions of diseases, and none of these vagaries refer to respiratory diseases such as asthma.  However, the Bible does show what life was like for asthmatics in ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, and the Jewish (Israelite, Hebrew) Community.

The Bible was probably written in the 1000 years that preceded the birth of Christ (10, page 511), although the information obtained in it goes back much farther.  Some experts estimate the Biblical date for the beginning of time as 4004 B.C.  

Now, before we delve into a discussion on the Biblical impact on history, we must first understand the Bible and the people who wrote it. You see, the style of writing at this time was pithy and allegorical, and they told truths about God, not so much about history.  For this reason, Biblical stories may allude to true events, and allude to scientific and medical achievements, yet not provide any detail to help historians paint a detailed picture.

The key to understanding the Bible is to understand the difference between truth and fact.  Simply put, something can be truthful without being factual.  For example, if you are trying to download a large file onto your computer and it is taking a long time, you might say that it is "taking a million years." You would be speaking the truth: the file is taking a long time to download.  Figurative language such as this communicates truth without relying totally on facts.

A good example from the Bible is the Bible saying that Adam lived 930 years.  Here again you have to consider the era in which the Bible was written.  People back then never even considered the idea of keeping track of a person's time in this world.  When the Bible says that Adam lived to be 930 years old, it is teaching the religious truth that he lived a long life, which is a sign of God's blessing.

Likewise, since the authors of the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, were recording stories that had previously been relayed by word of mouth from generation to generation, probably through prose, and probably around nighttime campfires, such stories are pithy.  They had to be pithy, because long stories would never be remembered in the days prior to writing.

So this is another cause of confusion regarding events recorded in the Bible.  Adam, for example, lived many years before his story was written, so there is no way of knowing exactly how long he lived.  Likewise, no one knows how long creation took, so the Bible makes it easy by summing these events into seven days

Okay, so that said, now we can get on with our history lesson.

Hebrew history is interesting because the people were nomads, meaning they had no home, or at least they were in search of a home.  Where they came from and why they left remains a mystery, and this is true of many of the societies that made their way to Egypt and Mesopotamia.

Because the Hebrews were nomads,  they lived among, and therefore were influenced, by the various cultures they came into contact with.  Among these cultures were those present in and around ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt.

The Babylonians believed that all disease was punishment from the gods, and some speculate this is why the Jews/ Hebrews likewise believed that their God, the only God, was responsible for causing all diseases and healing all diseases.  Through priests, who acted as mediators, the Hebrew God healed, or he allowed the prophets to heal.  (5, page 28)

The Hebrew were held captive in Egypt for several centuries prior to the exodus around 1550 B.C., and they were also held captive in Babylon around 604 B.C.  So there are various references to both the Mesopotamian and Egyptians medical beliefs, providing evidence that the early Jews were influenced by both.

Fielding Hudson Garrison, in his 1922 history of medicine, explains that:
In the Old Testament, disease is an expression of the wrath of God, to be removed only by moral reform, prayers and sacrifice; and it is God who confers both health and disease: 'I will put none of these diseases upon thee, which I have brought upon the Egyptians: for I am the Lord that healeth thee.' (7, page 57)(Exodus 15:26)
After God gave Moses the laws, the Lord said, "If you will obey me completely by doing what I consider right, and by keeping my commands, I will not punish you with any of the diseases that I brought on the Egyptians.  I am the Lord, the one who heals you." (Exodus 15: 26)

The Bible also refers to the Babylonian method of diagnosing through hepatoscopy, or inspecting the liver of sacrificial animals.  It is by this means they diagnose through divination or omens:
"For the king of Babylon stood at the Paring of the ways, at the head of the two ways to use divination:  he made his arrows bright, he consulted with images, he looked in the liver." (Ezekiel 21:21)
There are many references to God's ability to cause sickness and to heal, such as is mentioned by Job:
"God bandages the wounds he makes; his hands hurt you, and his hands heal you." (Job 5: 18) 
Abraham, who was labeled as "Father of Israel" by Israel's God, and who set the Israelites off on a quest for the land of Canaan, the promised land, mentions it sometime around the 2nd century B.C.:
Because of what had happened to Sarah, Abraham's wife, the Lord had made it impossible for any woman in Abimelech's palace to have children.  So Abraham prayed for Abimelech, and God healed his wife and his slave girls, so that they could have children. (Genesis: 20:17)
The prophet Jeremiah, who lived in the later part of the 7th century B.C., mentions it:
"But I will heal this city and its people and restore them to health.  I will show them abundant peace and security.  I will make Judah and Israel prosperous, and I will rebuilt them as they were before.  I will purify them from the sins that they have committed against me, and I will forgive their sins and their rebellion.  Jerusalem will be a source of joy, honor, and pride to me; and every nation in the world will fear and tremble when they hear about the good things that I do for the people of Jerusalem and about the prosperity that I bring to the city." (Jeremiah 33: 6)
"I will make you well again; I will heal your wounds." (Jeremiah 30:17 
Moses, who lived around 1550 B.C., mentions it as he calls for the Lord to heal his wife Miriam:
So Moses cried out to the Lord, "O God, heal her!"  (Numbers 12:13) 
Isaiah, who lived in the 8th century B.C., believed that not only was Assyria a great threat to Judah, but so too was the sin of the people.  In the Book of Isaiah, the Lord said of the Israelites:
"I have seen how they acted, but I will heal them. I will lead them and help them, and I will comfort those who mourn. I offer peace to all, both near and far! I will heal my people. But evil men are like the restless sea, whose waves never stop rolling in, bringing filth and muck. There is no safety for sinners," says the Lord. (Isaiah 57:18-21)
The prophet Hosea, who lived sometime before the fall of Samaria in 721 B.C., mentions it:
The people say, "let's return to the Lord!  He has hurt us, but he will be sure to heal us; he has wounded us, but he will bandage our wounds, won't he? In two or three days he will revive us, and we will live in his presence.  Let us try to know the Lord.  He will come to us as surely as the day dawns , as surely as the spring rains fall upon the earth." ( Hosea 6:1-3)
According to Garrison, priests were hygiene police, meaning that they made sure the people of Israel washed and purified their bodies in order to prevent the spread of disease.  Yet the priests, he says, did not act as physicians.  Instead, this task was left to the physician.  (7, page 57)

In the Bible, the various references to magi, or physicians, or high priests, are usually in reference to Egyptian or Babylonian healers  So there was definitely a crossover of the beliefs of the various ancient societies.

The Bible has perhaps the first recorded evidence that physicians existed in Egypt about 1,700  years before the birth of Christ.  When Jacob died, "Joseph commanded his servants, the physicians, to embalm him; and the physicians embalmed Israel, and forty days were fulfilled for him, for so are fulfilled the days of those that are embalmed." (1, page 26)(10, page 17)(7, page 57)(Genesis 50: 2)

Garrison explains that "the king Asa consulted physicians instead of the Lord and 'slept with his fathers' for his pains (II Chronicles 16: 12-13), or that if two men fight and one of them be injured to the extent of having to keep his bed, she or her 'shall pay for the loss of his time, and shall cause him to be thoroughly healed.(Exodus 21:19)" (7, page 57-58)

While the Bible makes no mention of asthma nor asthma remedies, it does make (perhaps) the first reference to a narcotic: (9, page 9)
During wheat harvest, Reuben went out into the fields and found some mandrake plants, which he brought to his mother Leah. Rachel said to Leah, “Please give me some of your son’s mandrakes.”  But she said to her, “Wasn’t it enough that you took away my husband? Will you take my son’s mandrakes too?” (Genesis 30: 14-15)
Mandrakes are a member of the nightshade family (solanaceae) of plants that, when ingested or inhaled, can make breathing easier and cause a hallucinogenic effect, easing pain and suffering.  The sonanaceae family of plants will play a significant role later in our asthma history, although it's doubtful (although possible) this was used as a remedy for dyspnea in the Biblical age.

Further reading:
  • 5000-50 B.C.: Asthma in Ancient Egypt, and Physicians
  • 5000-50 B.C.: Asthma in Ancient Egypt, and Eber Papyri 
  • 2700 B.C.: Imhotep invents rational medicine
  1. Renouard, Pierce Victor, "History of Medicine: From it's origin to the 19th century," 1856, Cincinnati, Moore, Wistach, Keys and Co., page 26, chapter 1, "Medicine of the Antique Nation."
  2. "Moses," Catholic Encyclopedia,, accessed 3/21/13
  3. Puschmann, Theodor, translated by Evan H. Hare, "A history of medical education from the most remote to the most recdent times," 1891, London, H.K. Lewis
  4. Dunglison, Robley, author, Richard James Dunglison, editor,  "History of Medicine from the earliest ages to the commencement of the nineteenth century," 1872, Philadelphia, Lindsay and Blakiston
  5. Baas, John Herman, "Outlines in the history of medicine and the medical profession," translated by H.F. Handerson, 1889, New York, J.H. Vail and Co.
  6. Wilder, Alexander, "History of Medicine: a brief outline of medical history and sects of physicians, from the earliest historic period; with an extended account of the new schools of the healing art in the nineteenth century, and especially a history of the american Eclectic practice of medicine, never before published," 1901, Maine, New England Eclectic Publishing, Co.
  7. Garrison, Fielding Hudson, "An introduction to the history of medicine, with medical chronology, suggestions for study, and bibliographic data," 3rd edition, 1922, Philadelphia and London, W.B. Saunders Company
  8. "The Assiatic Journal, for British adn foreign India, China and Australia," volume VIII, New Series, May-August, 1832, London, Parbury, Allen and Co.
  9. Bradford, Thomas Lindsley, "Quiz questions on the history of medicine: from the lectures of Thomas Lindsley Bradford," edited by Robert Ray Roth, 1898, Philadelphia, John Joseph McVey
  10. Prioreschi, Plinio, "A history of medicine: Primitive and ancient medicine," volume I, 1991, New York, The Edwin Mellen Press

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