Disease and Medicine in the Ancient World—Deuteronomy 7:15

People in the ancient world regarded disease as the result of offending the gods in some way, perhaps by violating a divine command. Only the gods themselves could restore health. As for treating disease, medical practitioners were generally limited to using natural remedies or magic formulas, though surgical techniques were used in ancient Egypt and India. Ancient cultures viewed people affected by psychiatric or neurological diseases as possessed by evil forces. The Sumerians during the third millennium BC believed that the gods brought disease (and other calamities) on those who had sinned.

Biblical texts offer numerous examples of personal fault or sinfulness resulting in disease as a divine judgment (Num. 5:20, 21; 12:10-13; Deut. 28:22, 27-35; 2 Sam. 24:15; 2 Chron. 21:18-20) and faithfulness to God as bringing health as a divine blessing (Exod. 15:26; 23:25-26; Deut. 7:15). A connection is also made between divine forgiveness and healing (Gen. 20; Ps. 103:3; John 5:5-9, 14; James 5:16). Scripture condemns Asa, king of Judah, for seeking help from “physicians” for his diseased feet without going to the Lord to seek forgiveness for his sinful behavior (2 Chron. 16:12).

Because falling sick or having any injury could quickly become fatal or cause severe disability, people sought the aid of a deity. First, though, they would try the natural medicine available. Certain plants were thought to help with infertility (Gen. 30:14-17). In the case of certain diseases or extreme weakness, people frequently used figs and grapes in the form of a paste or salves for local application or consumption (2 Kings 20:7; 1 Sam. 30:12, 13; Isa. 38:21). Balm, especially from Gilead, had highly regarded medical properties (Jer. 8:22; 46:11; 51:8). Those dressing wounds and broken bones used bandages and splints (Ezek. 30:21). Even certain objects were deemed to have medical properties (Num. 21:8, 9; 2 Kings 4:29-31; 13:21, 18:4; Matt. 9:20, 21; Acts 19:11, 12). In the most serious cases, someone would summon divine help through a healer (1 Kings 17:17, 22; 2 Kings 5:3, 6; Matt. 8:16, 17; Acts 28:8, 9).

Greco-Roman traditions preserve stories of people who had received from the gods the power to heal and even to resurrect the dead (Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca, 3:21-31). The Roman emperor Vespasian was said to have healed a blind man and a lame man (Suetonius, Life of Vespasian, VII). Many sanctuaries in ancient times acquired reputations for curing the sick. Archaeologists have thus found many votive objects depicting virtually all parts of the body at such shrines as those at Halicarnassus, Cnidus, and Epidaurus. They were deposited close to the image of the deity in payment (to the god) of salutary remedies (Titus Livius, History of Rome, 45.28).

Besides childhood complications or war injuries, the most common causes of illness resulted from a lack of hygiene and poor diet. The Bible provides principles meant to prevent and heal diseases: a plant-based diet (Gen. 2:9; 3:22), the law of weekly rest on the seventh day (Gen. 2:3; Exod. 20:10, 11, 23:12; Mark 2:27, 28), and the use of water to maintain cleanliness (Lev. 11:25; 14:8). Because of the constant problem of sanitation when people gathered in larger groups, they had to pay attention to hygiene (Deut. 23:9-14). When an army besieged a city, for example, it was a race as to who would first die from disease: those outside the city or those within. Scripture gives specific guidelines on nutrition to prevent disease and death (Lev. 3:17). Outside the biblical world, especially beginning in the fourth century BC, people grew more aware of the importance of diet and exercise in maintaining good health (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1.6; Plutarch, Banquet of the Seven Sages, 16).

As we have seen, people in ancient times viewed illness as the result of a fault or sin. Because despair and guilt accompanied illness, the promise of a Messiah who can heal maladies of the soul and the body—whether the direct or indirect consequences of sin—became especially important (Isa. 35:3-6 53:4, 5; 61:1; Luke 4:16-19). Eternal healing (therapeian in Greek) by the Tree of Life is one of the last promises in the Bible (Rev. 22:2).


Grmel and Gourevitch, Les maladies dans l’art antique.