Medicine, Healing and the Bible

Is there any mention of pharmacology or types of medicine in the Old Testament or Torah?

Wade J. 

Dear Wade,

As we regularly teach, the world is both physical and spiritual; people are both body and soul.  Some of what motivates us is physical but most is spiritual. Spiritual doesn’t mean Godly, religious, or virtuous.  It simply means aspects of reality which can’t be measured in a scientific laboratory. And here is the important thing: The Torah is teaching the timeless truths of spiritual reality, relying on us to study enough of the world to understand physical reality.  The closing words of Exodus 15:26 are, “…for I am the Lord your healer.”  Ancient Jewish wisdom asks us to emulate the Lord and learn the arts and sciences of healing.  

One of the most important contributions that what you refer to as the ‘Old Testament’ makes to modern medicine is the enlightening principle of holistic medicine.  This teaches us what psychosomatic disease is and how placebos work. Physical and spiritual health are closely interlinked.

For this reason, Deuteronomy 4:9 tells us, “Just guard yourself and guard your soul vigilantly…”   That verse, explains ancient Jewish wisdom, links our physical health to our spiritual health and places upon us the obligation to take excellent care of both.

So while the Bible does not tell us explicitly how to heal Hansen’s Disease or how to cure cancer, it does direct us to use the services of a trained doctor.  Furthermore, it emphasizes that living a spiritually meaningful life helps maintain physical health while a dissolute and immoral existence takes a toll on bodily well-being.  

A search through Scripture reveals the root R-F-A being used for words dealing with healing. (For example, Exodus 15:26 and Ezekiel 47:12*)  As you can see, the two words below share a commonality, though in Hebrew the A ending is spelled with two different, but complementary letters. 

ר   פ   א     /     ר   פ   ה

If (as we sincerely hope) you are a student of Scrolling through Scripture, you understand that we could spend a great deal of time delving into the ancient Jewish wisdom that emerges from these two similar, yet slightly different, words. A search through Scripture for words based on these letters will lead you to words for weakness and even for a type of giant. 

We say all this in an effort to explain that your question opens up many doors. The underlying principle though, is that human doctors and tangible medications are both tools through which God can heal illness. If you look at many of the verses using these words you will see that God heals “through” some action—perhaps directing that a copper snake be built, or immersing in a river, or sprinkling incense. All these “pharmacologies” and “treatments” are only tools of God. Without His cooperation, they will not work. 

The Bible will not tell you to take aspirin rather than acetaminophen or ibuprofen. It will let you know that God is the ultimate healer and that if human beings on the whole were living spiritually and physically correct lives, there would be fewer illnesses and that God would also open the curtains of Heaven to allow us more insight into healing. 

Stay well,

Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin

*Exodus 15:26: רפאך – your healer – 7th line, 3rd word from the right (just before the line break)
Ezekiel 47:12:  לתרופה – for medicine – 10th line from the bottom, 2nd line from the left (just before the line break)

How can you gain insight into the deeper meanings of 29 Hebrew words such as family, love, laughter, and wealth?

What’s a fun way to become familiar with the Hebrew alphabet?

Buried Treasure: Secrets for Living from the Lord’s Language
Aleph-Bet: A Fun, Bible-based, Rhyming Introduction to the Hebrew Alphabet

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9 thoughts on “Medicine, Healing and the Bible”

  1. In the same vein I would like to add the following question:

    Does it comply with ancient Jewish wisdom if I accept medical assistance that includes a vaccine that is based on cells of aborted children?

    1. This is an excellent question and topic for further discussion, San Sebastian (I’m not sure that’s the correct way to address you, but hope you understand if it isn’t). Unfortunately, that discussion doesn’t fit into a short comment. But it is very worthwhile to pursue.

  2. Jean, your aspirin-point is outrageous. Because by its logic it would be ok to accept the witch doctor’s potion, thus promoting sorcery, only because its ingredients are scientific.

    By contrast Daniel refused food sacrificed to idols although scientifically it would have filled his stomach.

    From a different angle I ask myself “Do we really need to rationally understand the operating mechanisms of a certain medicine? Why? Isn’t it sufficient that the desired curing effect kick in? Does it make such a difference for the one being healed?


    Rabbi Lapin’s point that G_d is a healer and we should emulate him raises another question.

    When G_d heals he does so without side effects. Does emulating him mean we should administer (and accept) only medical procedures that are without side effect?

    How huge are those side effects or risks allowed to be for us to still be able to claim we are emulating G_d?

  3. Are witch doctors and their potions also tools through which God can heal illness?

    What about homeopaths or practitioners of Chinese Medicine?

    Where’s the borderline?

    The question is very relevant. I once went to a normal, trained Western physician who had just returned from a vacation in the jungle. She explained to me, that while in the jungle, she had developed the same symptoms as I was suffering from and that the local witch doctor had concocted a special potion for her that to her bewilderment had been extremely effective, and she recommended that I use her leftover potion that she wanted to share with me.

    Based on your teaching does ancient Jewish wisdom allow me to try out my luck with that potion?

    Or are you anti- me being cured quickly?

    The problem goes further still:
    Does scripture allow any procedure that Western Medicine suggests or rather expect me to in some cases trust in H’ who heals and do nothing?

    What are the guiding principles?

    I fear that your answer did not fully satisfy Wade.

    1. 1) Have you had the “potion” tested and analyzed? It’s very possible that the ingredients have pharmacological properties that are found in “western” medicine in a synthesized form. Aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid) was formulated after finding that Native Americans chewed on willow sprigs to alleviate headaches and toothaches. 2) Having faith in G_d doesn’t absent the individual from seeking medical attention when needed. But one famous long-term study of nurses show that being serious about your religious faith has an impact on quality and quantity of life. Religious beliefs impact lifestyle choices and diet, in many cases, as well as the general mental attitude, all of which contribute to the health and well-being of a person. The term “holistic” refers to just that – health isn’t just physical, but spiritual and emotional as well.

  4. This hits home for me. I had my thyroid removed almost 2 years ago because of cancer. I am now on thyroid medication for the rest of my life. Long story short, I was overmedicated last summer because my Dr. upped my dose which caused physical and emotional symptoms. I did not how much this tiny organ can effect so much of our bodies and getting the medication just right can be tricky. The physical symptoms have long disappeared many weeks ago, but the spiritual effects still linger. I felt like my Dr. did not really listen to me when I let him know how I was being effected. It took almost 2 months for him to change the dosage back. I lost some of my trust in him.

  5. There are health conditions outside our control, but a lot of people would benefit from a healthier diet and regular physical exercise. Is willpower synonymous with spirituality? I guess we can be unbalanced on either side. I believe that the Lord has blessed doctors with the skill and knowledge they have so that he can work through them.

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