Friday, February 17, 2012

Leviticus...and Medical Science?

We're reading the Bible through chronologically at Providence. We're at the first dreaded "dry" part that I knew was coming--Leviticus. In my mind I picture people dropping like flies from the reading plan. It's sooo difficult--regarding both tedium and comprehension. How can it possibly apply to us today?
One of our elders and medical doctor, Marc Bodenheimer was expressing his genuine amazement with Leviticus this week at elders meeting. We said, "You've GOT to write a blog post on this!" He did. Wondering about why stuff like human bodily discharges, unclean animals, not touching dead bodies, ceremonial washing, and isolating people with certain ailments are in the Bible? You've GOT to read on...

Maybe not so Modern Medicine

So…here we are, muddling through several days of Leviticus. Can anyone say priests, rules, and blood…lots and lots of blood in these seemingly inexhaustible sacrifices? What happened to all the great story lines in the first two books? And…are your kids asking questions you have no idea how to answer?

I’m sure Chad is going to clear most of this up on Sunday. In Leviticus, we begin to see God. He is pure, just, and Holy and that is what he desires of his people. Since we are not these things, we get Leviticus. However, there is one very fascinating aspect of Leviticus that can be easily overlooked. Did you miss it? Medical science.

One of the most interesting aspects of the Bible is that we see the truth, long before it is even understood. The Bible is a book compiled over thousands of years with around 40 authors, and yet it speaks in complete harmony and accuracy. Perhaps the most notable example of this accuracy happens in Leviticus as it regards medicine.

Moses is credited for writing the Pentateuch and we know that Moses was educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians (Acts 7:22). This would apply to the medical knowledge that was prevalent in that time as well. The primary Egyptian medical document prior to and during Moses life was the Papyrus Ebers. There are also several other Papyri that have similar content.

Wouldn’t you expect the Papyrus Ebers to look something like Leviticus when it speaks to medicine? Let’s see what it says about some basic medical care. The treatment for a splinter: worm guts and donkey dung. Sounds like a great recipe for contracting tetanus. Closer to home for me, it even has recommendations for hair loss: the combined fats of six animals, including a hippopotamus. If you are only turning gray you can apply the blood of a black calf mixed with rattlesnake fat – so long Clairol Natural Instincts and Just for Men. My personal favorite is the treatment of eye diseases. Glaucoma? Cow Urine. Cataracts? Cow Urine. Macular degeneration? You guessed it, cow urine.

This is just touching the surface of medical ideas that today are considered preposterous. While these ideas may seem crazy today, the Egyptians were no medical slouches. They were considered the most medically advanced culture of that time and provided the foundation for Greek medicine, but their ideas in no way mesh with modern medical knowledge. In contrast, Leviticus describes medical care that, although primitive, is sound even by today’s standards.

So given that it is drastically different from Egyptian knowledge, where does Leviticus come from? Within Leviticus we see medical concepts that aren’t realized until 3000 years later. Leviticus 15 describes personal hygiene, wound care, and precautions that are standard for medical personnel today. Chapters 13 and 14 give diagnostic criteria that are essential for determining the presence of a contagious infection. They further describe the need for isolation while confirming a diagnosis and quarantine once it is established. While the Egyptians might have shared some of these practices, it is clear from their literature that the ideas presented in Leviticus were drastically different and much more medically sound when viewed from a modern perspective.


Let’s fast-forward approximately 2800 years after Leviticus was written. Wouldn’t you expect medical science to have advanced dramatically? In the mid-1300’s the known world was ravaged by the bubonic plague, also known as the black death. Estimates are that one-third to one-half of the population of the world died from that disease.

During that time, it was widely believed by scientists and physicians that foul air, called miasmas, were responsible for the disease. People shunned the swamps and refused to go out during the fog. They burned huge fires to keep the foul air away, but they continued to die. Of course, today this seems silly because we know that rat fleas were the vector by which the bacteria causing the disease was transmitted.

Interestingly, the Jewish population experienced significantly lower infection rates than the general population. This difference was so extreme that in some instances the Jewish people were blamed for causing the disease. Of course, the Jews had no idea what caused the bubonic plague, but they did have practices described in Leviticus that significantly limited the spread of the disease. Ultimately the church, with the description of quarantine and waste disposal in Levitical law, was instrumental in helping control the black death.

It’s not until the 1800’s that we actually begin to see an understanding of true microbiology in modern science. Although germ theory was initially proposed in the 1700’s, it was widely contested until Louis Pasteur’s experiments supported it in the 1860’s. Just prior to this, Ignaz Semmelweis , a Hungarian physician, realized that women giving birth in the hospital were several times more likely to die from puerperal fever (“childbed fever”) than those giving birth at home to midwives. He established a relationship with doctor’s performing autopsies and subsequently delivering babies. His development of antiseptic hand washing techniques reduced the hospital mortality to less than 1/10 of its previous rate. Isn’t it interesting that Leviticus speaks to both the need for washing after exposure to dead bodies and the postpartum risk of infection to women?

The Bible was not written as a medical text. However, its accuracy when it touches these issues is astounding. Moses would not, nor could he, have written about medical ideas that were contrary to the established medical practices of that time, yet he did. The exception occurs because there is a God who designed microbiology, who understands it better than even the greatest contemporary scientists, and is a Holy Spirit who is the author of the Bible. In this way, Leviticus confirms the greatness of God and my conviction that the Bible is God’s inerrant revelation to all people.


I told you! Maybe Leviticus is much more relevant than we first thought! And perhaps the Bible is more reliable than we imagined!

3 comments:

Phil Breedlove said...

Wow...I can truly say "I had no idea..."

And it just points out my arrogance in reading through this thinking "Boy, I'll sure be glad when I can get past all this stuff that has NO application these days."

Thanks Marc...and to Chad for bringing it to us!

Monique Charles said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Monique Charles said...

I know I'm commenting 2 years later...but I have recently started the chronological plan and am in Leviticus. I had an idea that the commands in the Bible were medically necessary, but have started looking for the scientific reasons behind them. Some of them seem obvious, some of them, not so much. I appreciate your post here and will continue to look deeper in to one of the "boring" books of the Bible. I'm also curious to find a "family tree" when I hit the genealogies...