Mandrakes and Dove Blood: Biblical Health Care Anyone?

Mandrake root for fertilityWith an inerrant Bible and church leaders who channel the Almighty, conservative Christians are convinced that they know what God wants.

Just what does God want (other than for modern contraceptives and abortion to be inaccessible to women?) Throughout the Bible, both Old Testament and New, physical health is largely a spiritual matter.

Is any sick among you? 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 shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up (James 5:14-15).

Healings come from prayers, rituals of repentance, and miraculous intervention. In Chronicles King Asa, who has a severe foot ailment, is held up as a bad example for seeking help from physicians and not from God. By contrast, King Hezekiah prays when he falls ill, and Yehovah adds fifteen years to his life.

For those who don’t want simply to pray and wait, the Bible does actually prescribe or describe a variety of healing practices. Unfortunately, healthcare in the Bible, perhaps more than any other topic, reveals the authors to be men of their time—the Iron Age. Like prescriptions against homosexuality, Hebrew and early Christian health practices appear to be shaped largely by surrounding cultures and the “yuck factor.”

If there were any room to doubt, a quick overview of biblical health care is a great reminder why Abrahamic religion should not be dictating national health policy.

Dermatology: quarantines and dove blood. Based on the level of detailed attention it receives in the Bible, dermatology might appear to be the most important medical specialty. Two chapters of Leviticus are dedicated to assessment and treatment of visible skin infections, which, given the descriptions, might include skin cancers, leprosy, cystic acne, or psoriasis. Such infections must be diagnosed by a priest: Anyone with such a defiling disease must wear torn clothes, let their hair be unkempt, cover the lower part of their face and cry out, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ As long as they have the disease they remain unclean. They must live alone; they must live outside the camp. (Leviticus 13:45-46). Later, the priest finalizes the healing process by killing two lambs or doves: The priest is to take some of the blood of the guilt offering and put it on the lobe of the right ear of the one to be cleansed, on the thumb of their right hand and on the big toe of their right foot (Leviticus 14:14). In a second ritual the patient is sprinkled with blood that has had a scarlet string, hyssop, and a live bird dipped in it.

Treatment of skin wounds may include the use of bandages and soothing balms, but most cures recorded in the biblical texts are faith healings. In one story, a foreign military leader Naaman gets rid  of his skin disease after dipping seven times in the Jordan River on the advice of the seer Elisha. (Both the number seven and the Jordan have special powers throughout the Bible.) However, the story is a tribute to the power of the Hebrew God, not any general prescription for healing.

Obstetrics and Gynecology: words of encouragement. Midwifery is a clear part of Bible-based medical practice, though without modern tools the power of the midwife is limited. At the birth of the patriarch Benjamin, a midwife offers his mother Rachael encouraging words right before she dies from postpartum hemorrhaging: “Do not fear, for now you have another son” (Genesis 35:17). In another story, a midwife ties a scarlet string around the hand of one twin to distinguish which came out first.

Menstrual and post-partum bleeding are considered unclean, and a woman is unclean for twice as long after giving birth to a girl as a boy. Cleansing rituals are prescribed for any man who has sex with a menstruating woman or even touches something she has contaminated, but in the absence of science-based medicine, no procedures are recommended to give women means to reduce or avoid bleeding.

Fertility: mandrake roots and prayer. The mandrake plant was widely believed to have special powers long before J.K. Rowling wrote it into her Harry Potter books. It appears in the book of Genesis as a fertility agent. In Genesis 30, two sister wives (literally) are competing to produce male offspring, and they turn to the powers of the mandrake.

 Now in the days of wheat harvest Reuben went and found mandrakes in the field, and brought them to his mother Leah. Then Rachel said to Leah, “Please give me some of your son’s mandrakes.” But she said to her, “Is it a small matter for you to take my husband? And would you take my son’s mandrakes also?” So Rachel said, “Therefore he may lie with you tonight in return for your son’s mandrakes.” When Jacob came in from the field in the evening, then Leah went out to meet him and said, “You must come in to me, for I have surely hired you with my son’s mandrakes.” So he lay with her that night. God gave heed to Leah, and she conceived and bore Jacob a fifth son.” (Genesis 30:9-22)

Ophthalmology: spit and mud.  In the Old Testament, the primary objective in managing vision defects is to ensure that people with bad vision don’t defile sacred spaces or the halls of power. They are not excluded from town, like people with skin infections, but they are excluded from the temple. However, in the New Testament, Jesus heals several blind men. To do so, he calls on a combination of faith, spit, and mud (John 9:6). This technique would have been familiar to Greek and Roman readers of the Gospels, since the Greek god-man Asclepius was said to heal the blind in a similar fashion.

Orthopedics: isolation and exorcism. Like ophthalmology, the primary goal of Old Testament orthopedic management is to keep defective people from contaminating sacred spaces or food offerings:

No man of your offspring throughout their generations who has a defect shall approach to offer the food of his God. For no one who has a defect shall approach: a blind man, or a lame man, or he who has a disfigured face, or any deformed limb, or a man who has a broken foot or broken hand, or a hunchback or a dwarf, or one who has a]defect in his eye or eczema or scabs or crushed testicles. (Leviticus 21:17-23).

However, acute injuries were treated differently; there is at least indirect evidence that splinting was standard practice for broken bones. In the visions of Ezekiel, unsplinted broken bones are a metaphor for political weakness: Son of man, I have broken the arm of Pharaoh king of Egypt; and, behold, it has not been bound up for healing or wrapped with a bandage, that it may be strong to hold the sword.” (Ezekiel 30:21)

At least one New Testament story suggests that orthopedic problems can be caused by demon possession, which would suggest exorcism as a solution.  And there was a woman who for eighteen years had had a sickness caused by a spirit; and she was bent double, and could not straighten up at all. When Jesus saw her, He called her over and said to her, “Woman, you are freed from your sickness.” And He laid His hands on her; and immediately she was made erect again and began glorifying God.

Psychiatry and Neurology: more exorcism. Psychiatric and neurological problems in the Bible are attributed to demons, which unlike the monsters of modern horror movies, almost always cause symptoms we would recognize today as medical syndromes. In the Old Testament, such accounts are rare, and an evil spirit may be sent by God himself. But in the New Testament, demon possession becomes a prominent theme. Demons can cause muteness, epilepsy, and abnormal strength; they can inhabit animals and more than one can inhabit a single person. Typically, fortunately, they leave when commanded to do so, either by Jesus or by a Christian in the name of Jesus.

Preventive Care: worship, worship, worship. Rather than nutrition, exercise and sunscreen, biblical preventive care focuses primarily on pleasing God or at least avoiding his wrath. In no uncertain terms the writer of Deuteronomy reminds readers who is in charge. There is no other God beside me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal. (Deut. 32:39). Righteousness has great health rewards: Worship the LORD your God, and his blessing will be on your food and water. I will take away sickness from among you, and none will miscarry or be barren in your land. I will give you a full life span (Ex. 23:25-26). But on the other side of the equation are illness, injury and hemorrhoids. The LORD will smite thee with the botch of Egypt, and with the emerods, and with the scab, and with the itch, whereof thou canst not be healed (Deuteronomy 28:27).

Patience.  Ultimately, the trump card in biblical health care is the promise of Heaven, with incorruptible bodies that experience neither hunger nor thirst, sickness nor death. In one prophetic vision, the writer of Ezekiel describes a utopian version of the Promised Land. In it, a great river flows, providing an unending bounty of nourishment—and medicine: By the river on both banks (shall be) every type of tree fit for food. Their leaves shall not wither, and its fruit shall never cease. Every month it shall renew its fruit, for its waters spring from the Temple itself; And its fruit shall be fit to eat, and its leaves (shall serve as) medicine.” Ezekiel 47:12

The dream of beauty, sufficiency, and wholeness conjured by Ezekiel is enough to make even an old skeptic like me a little wistful. If only dreaming worked, and mandrakes and dove blood and prayers.

More from the Bible at Awaypoint:
Captive Virgins, Polygamy, Sex Slaves: What Marriage Would Look Like if We Actually Followed the Bible
Mandrakes and Dove Blood:  Biblical Healthcare Anyone? 
If the Bible Were Law, Would You Qualify For the Death Penalty?
What the Bible Says About Rape and Rape Babies
Woman’s Hanging and Burning of Dog Biblical

About Valerie Tarico

Seattle psychologist and writer. Author - Trusting Doubt; Deas and Other Imaginings.
This entry was posted in Christianity in the Public Square, Reproductive Health, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Mandrakes and Dove Blood: Biblical Health Care Anyone?

  1. Mriana says:

    My problem with the Religious Reich’s form of medicine would cause only death. People would die under such treatment, not survive, esp during time of birth. More women would die, along with their unborn or newborn babies. Very few people would have a chance of living life and if the child did survive childbirth, the very few would not live past the age of 5 and that is only if the mother survived or if they had a wet-nurse. In other words, the Religious Reich would throw up back prior to the 1860s if not further back in time. The only difference is that drs today will not accept chickens for medical services rendered. I do wish people would grow out of superstitions and mythical beliefs and start accepting medical science, as well as other forms of science.


  2. The Truth Seeker says:

    To some extent you can excuse the ignorance of the people of the Old and New Testament about things of science and medicine. What can’t be excused is the stupidity of people living in the 21st century who still believe in these same myths. You would think that anyone with half a mind would have learned better by now. But no, we still have men who try to control women by making them wear absurd clothing which covers their bodies so that other sick men won’t take advantage of them. It is amazing to me that when you consider all Christians and Muslims we have over 2 billion people who still believe these ridiculous things of the Old and New Testament or the Koran.

    And we have that glorious regime of orthodoxy, the Roman Catholic church who continues to live hundreds if not thousands of years ago behind times. The Catholic church’s stand on birth control and abortion puts all third world countries in mortal danger of being extincted. And we have the leader of that church, the pope, who was once a hider of pedophiles himself. What are we to think of all this blind stupidity that hinders growth in the world?

    We continue to hear absurd recommendations to let these people live in peace, follow their own beliefs and not bother them. It they would live in peace and not try to convert this world into a religion led world that would be alright, but they won’t. So we have to stand up to them and resist their ignorance with reason, logic, science and advanced medicine.


    • “It they would live in peace and not try to convert this world into a religion led world that would be alright, but they won’t. So we have to stand up to them and resist their ignorance with reason, logic, science and advanced medicine.” — This is exactly the issue for me.


  3. marlenewinell says:

    Brilliant and hilarious


  4. As usual brilliant and profound. Starting about 5 years ago, in Canada as well some well placed politicians started to bring back religion into politics. In a world where tensions from islamic powers are already very high, it is all very preoccupying. Yet, the only thing to do is the usual strong and steady work on transparency, ethics, rule of law, compassion, and….lots of patience :-)


    • Thanks, Jacques. It pains me to see the strategies of the American Religous Right seeping into Canadian politics. I wonder how much it is a consequence of Fox news and analogous programming reaching across the border.


  5. bbnewsab says:

    Reblogged this on bbnewsblog and commented:
    How to cure illness and diseases according to the Bible. Prayers seem to be a panacea, i.e. a cure for nearly all ills. But what about saliva, dove blood or mandrakes? Why have those therapies become outmoded? Don’t people believe in the Bible any more?


  6. Ken Reed says:

    I’d like to try mandrakes to cure a number of ailments I have, most of which are attributable to my age (85). Do health food stores sell them? Or where can I find some? Can I get seed, and grow them myself, like marijuana? Please advise.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. apollos5600 says:

    A lot of these strikes are rather weak (but I didn’t read them all). For example, the mandrake example only states “and God gave heed to so-and-so.” In other words, it doesn’t actually say that mandrakes work to increase the odds of pregnancy. It only says that God satisfied Leah’s desire for a child. If anything, it means that it was God who was the cause of the pregnancy, not the mandrakes, unless you want to claim that the text implies that mandrakes cause God to pay heed (but that is purely in the mind of the reader–the text doesn’t say that).

    Another example is the circumcision and the separation the mother must take, it being double if she births a girl. From the logic of uncleanliness (it has nothing to do with medicinal concerns or healthcare), the male child is considered as paying for part of the purgation due to his circumcision and the blood loss he experiences from there. Since girls are not circumcised, the time is double. (Or so it is supposed by various Jews and scholars, as these things are never explained.) It could also be that women are simply considered more unclean than boys, which I suppose might have some standing, since Paul says it is better not to marry, and women are considered subordinate to men.

    You can say that’s silly or wrong, but you can’t assert that it has something to do with avoiding sickness or anything else. It’s a spiritual ritual and nothing more, the aim being to instill a hyper-vigilant need for remaining physically clean for spiritual purposes.

    Well, this reply is 4 years late, so it probably doesn’t matter lol.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Pingback: Evidence About Jesus is Weaker than You Might Think – By Valerie Tarico and David Fitzgerald – International Union of Historians and Philosophers

  9. Pingback: The evidence that Jesus ever existed is weaker than you might think | Reasonable Rants

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