Each Hebrew village had a physician who specialized in medicine and a surgery. Some specialized in internal medicine, some external medicine, and others both. (3, page 28-29) Permission to practice medicine had to be obtained by the magistrates where the physician wished to settle. If you were sick (perhaps with asthma) you had the option of seeking out this physician to heal you.
This physician, however, also must obtain permission from the Beth-din, which was the council of the town. Did the doctor have to pass a test? Was he interviewed? What questions were asked? Did he otherwise have to prove his competency? The answers to these questions remain a mystery, explains Robley Dunglison in his 1872 history of medicine. (4, page 31-32)
Jewish physicians were knowledgeable of the basics of anatomy, although their knowledge was quite primitive, as it was for most ancient societies. They did not understand the concept of internal diseases, nor the link between anatomy and disease. However, as noted by Garrison, they did have a basic understanding of the most common diseases that left visible signs, such as leprosy, syphilis, phthisis, scabies, anthrax, epilepsy, and the various plagues (such as the plague of Ball Peor (numbers 25: 9) in which 24,000 perished. (7, page 59)
The best remedy was the one preached by Moses: good hygiene. This included bathing, hand washing, sexual restraint, etc. Although, if someone did get sick, the remedies were simple. For instance, the remedy for leprosy was washing in the Jordan, or "dipping seven times in the Jordan. (2 Kings 5: 14)" (7, page 59-60)
These physicians were educated in "sanitary administration and jurisprudence," says Puschmann. Along with good hygiene, they were also required to do other things to prevent disease, which included circumcision. (3, page 28-29) While modern experts think they have disproved this theory, ancient people believed uncircumcised penises were more likely to become infected. This was how circumcision made its way into the Bible.
Physicians were also, as noted by Garrison, required to isolate people with infectious disease such as leprosy, syphilis, gonorrhea and leukorrhea, as noted in Leviticus 12-15. (7, page 60) This was another significant measure of preventing healthy people from getting these diseases. It must also have been observed that many diseases were spread through sexual contact, and so sexual abstinence prior to marriage was encouraged, and loyalty to one man or one woman was also encouraged.
Puschmann notes that when a person was sick he called upon his physician, who paid the sick a visit. Then the physician was paid by the sick or his family, and not by a collective tax. (3, page 28-29) Although, "Jewish medicine was almost exclusively a medicine of the state, not a private profession," writes Thomas Bradford in his 1898 book "Quiz questions on the history of medicine." (9, page 9)(5, page 31)
The neat thing about ancient people such as Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, and Hebrews, is you didn't have to be a physicians to be an expert in medicine, says Puschman. He explains this was because medicine was included in the list of knowledge taught at schools. It would be like going to college today for Journalism, and having to take classes in math, English and Business. So many of the people mentioned in the Bible, particularly prophets such as Solomon, Elijah, Elisha and Ahijah, had medical wisdom, and this wisdom allowed them to "become famous for their successful cures." (3, page 29)
Baas says King Solomon (who reigned 1020-980 B.C.) was a prophet who had the ability to cure, (2, page 32) and Bradford said of Solomon that "tradition attributes to him a medical work which taught how to cure diseases by natural means. Arabian authorities assert that he left a history of plants and animals, and a number of other works." (9, page 8)
There are various, and random, references to the healing powers of the prophets in the Bible. Elisha, who lived in the 9th century B.C., healed the water that causes miscarriages:
Some men from Jericho went to Elisha and said, "As you know, sir, this is a fine city, but the water is bad and causes miscarriages." Elisha said, "Put some salt in a bowl and bring it to me." They brought it to him, and he went to the spring, threw in the salt in the water, and said, "This is what the Lord says: 'I make this water pure, and it will not cause any more deaths or miscarriages.'" And that water has been pure ever since, just as Elisha said it would be. (Kings 2: 19-22)Elisha also resurrected a Shunammite's son:
When Elisha arrived, he went alone into the room and saw the boy lying dead on the bed. He closed the door and prayed to the Lord. Then he lay down on the boy, placing his mouth, eyes, and hands on the boy's mouth, eyes, and hands. As he lay stretched out over the boy, the boy's body started to get warm. Elisha got up, walked around the room, and then went back and again stretched himself over the boy. the boy sneezed seven times and then opened his eyes. Elisha called Gehazi and told him to call the boy's mother. When she came in, he said to her, "Here's your son." She fell at Elisha's feet, with her face touching the ground; then she took her son and left." (Kings 4: 32-37)He also healed Naaman:
"Naaman was commander of the army of the king of Aram. He was a great man in sight of his master and highly regarded. because through him the Lord had given victory to Aram. He was a valiant soldier, but he had leprosy. Now bands of raiders from Aram had gone out and had taken captive a young girl from Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. She said to her mistress, 'If only my master would see the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.'” (2Kings 5:1-2)Naaman's master allowed him to see the king of Aram, who allowed Naaman to see the king of Israel for permission, although the king of Israel " tore his robes and said, “Am I God? Can I kill and bring back to life? Why does this fellow send someone to me to be cured of his leprosy? See how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me!”
The next passages says that:
When Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his robes, he sent him this message: “Why have you torn your robes? Have the man come to me and he will know that there is a prophet. So Naaman went with his horses and chariots and stopped at the door of Elisha’s house. Elisha sent a messenger to say to him, “Go, wash yourself seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh will be restored and you will be cleansed.”But Naaman went away angry and said,
“I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, wave his hand over the spot and cure me of my leprosy. Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Couldn’t I wash in them and be cleansed?” So he turned and went off in a rage. Naaman’s servants went to him and said, “My father, if the prophet had told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more, then, when he tells you, ‘Wash and be cleansed’!”So he went down and dipped himself in the Jordan seven times, as the man of God had told him, and his flesh was restored and became clean like that of a young boy. (2Kings 5:9-15)To finish this neat story, Naaman offered payment, or at least to be a servant to the prophet, but Elisha would not take payment, saying, "go in peace." Gehazi, the servant of Elisha, was upset that Elisha didn't take payment, and so he did so himself. Elisha punished Gehazi:
But Elisha said to him, “Was not my spirit with you when the man got down from his chariot to meet you? Is this the time to take money or to accept clothes—or olive groves and vineyards, or flocks and herds, or male and female slaves? Naaman’s leprosy will cling to you and to your descendants forever.” Then Gehazi went from Elisha’s presence and his skin was leprous—it had become as white as snow. (2Kings 5: 27-28)In another Biblical story, King Asa (10th century B.C.) was king of Judah, and he was among the first kings to be faithful to the worship of God. In fact, even his name, Asa, means physician. He opposed idolatry and all immoral behavior. Yet despite his faithfulness, when he was struck with disease at the end of his life, he consulted physicians instead of the Lord (2Chronicles 16: 12-14)
"In the thirty-ninth year of his reign Asa was diseased in his feet, and his disease became severe; yet even in his disease he did not seek The Lord, but sought help from physicians. And Asa slept with his fathers, dying in the forty-first year of his reign. They buried him in the tomb which he had hewn out for himself in the city of David. They laid him on a bier which had been filled with various kinds of spices prepared by the perfumer's art; and they made a very great fire in his honor." (2Chronicles 16: 12-14King Jeroboam, who died in 910 B.C., prayed to an old prophet for healing:
The prophet prayed to the Lord, and the king's arm was healed. (Kings I 13: 7)The prophet Elijah, who lived around 869-850 B.C., healed a widow's son:
"Give the boy to me," Elijah said. He took the boy from her arms, carried him upstairs to the room where he was staying, and laid him on the bed. Then he prayed aloud, "O Lord my god, why have you done such a terrible thing to this widow? She has been kind enough to take care of me, and now you kill her son!" Then Elijah stretched himself out on the boy three times and prayed, "O Lord my god, restore this child's life!" The Lord answered Elijah's prayer; the child started breathing again and revived. (Kings I 17: 19-22)Isaiah cured king Heekiah's illness:
Isaiah left the king, but before he had passed through the central courtyard of the palace the Lord told him to go back to Hezekiah, ruler of the Lord's people, and say to him, "I, the Lord, the god of your ancestor David, have heard your prayer and seen your tears. I will heal you, and in three days you will go to the temple. I will let you live fifteen years longer. I will rescue you and this city Jerusalem from the emperor of Assyria. I will defend this city, for the sake of my own honor and because of the promise I made to my servant David." (Kings II 20: 4-6)There are many more references to health and healing in the Bible, from Adam all the way to Jesus. Consider the following:
- “If you will diligently listen to the voice of the your God, and do that which is right in his eyes, and give ear to his commandments and keep all his statutes, I will put none of the diseases on you that I put on the Egyptians, for I am the healer.” (Peter 2:24)
- Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. (James 5:14-16
- And he called to him his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and every affliction. (Matthew 10:1)
- And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people. (Matthew 4:23)
- “But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed." (Isaiah 53:5, and 1Peter 2:24)
So the Bible, while not a medical texts, provides us with some vague information of medical wisdom from around 1500 to 1700 years before the birth of Christ. Most diseases at this time were best left to nature (4, page 30), as the remedies provided (bleeding, purging, emetics) often made the patient feel worse, and sometimes caused death. The Bible offered a hope and a prayer, perhaps the best remedy of all.
Reference: See "1700 B.C.: Hebrew Bible influences medicine"