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