Illness & Healing

The Bible sees folk healing as idolatrous.

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Ancient Judaism acclaimed God as source of health and illness, with sickness a divine-mandated punishment for individual and communal sins.

In the Bible, God is viewed as responsible for all healing, and the magical healing practices of the surrounding nations were associated with idolatry. Over time the physician was increasingly accepted as a healer who worked in partnership with God, although elements of folk healing always existed alongside.

The Hebrew prophets understood “healing” to be both physical and spiritual. Some spoke of individuals being healed through a return to God, mediated by those who understood the connection between healing and God–the priests and prophets. They would invoke God’s help through sacrifice, prayer, repentance, and fasting as well as priestly purification rituals.

Traditional scholarship contrasted these biblical healing practices with the pagan exorcism practices of local cultures whose goal was to combat evil powers through jewish healthcarespells or incantations. Recent scholarship, however, contends that Israelite communities influenced by Egyptian, Midianite, or Roman cultures used local healing practices, including magical spells, incantation, and exorcism.

A Long Transition From Magical to Scientific Healing

Although rabbinic texts record some stories of magical healers, the rabbis generally downplayed their role because they represented a challenge to rabbinic authority. The rabbis did not make the kinds of distinctions we do today between magical and nonmagical practices; although they denounced magic, they sometimes sanctioned the use of charms and incantations.

The association of magical healing practices with idolatry and the injunctions against contact with blood and corpses limited the development of the medical profession. Only with the influence of Hellenistic views on “scientific” medicine was there an increasing acceptance of physicians as healers; the Talmud, for example, actually prohibited Jews from living in a city without a physician. The rabbis also maintained that God himself authorized and, in fact, required medicine and healing.

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