The Sanitation and Medicine of Ancient Israel; Borrowed from Surrounding Cultures?

Could Moses have borrowed his health laws from Egypt, Babylon or China?

It has been popular in secular academia for years to attempt to explain all theistic religion from an entirely naturalistic view (atheist view). The German higher critics wrote volumes explaining their view of the evolution of religion, and modern textbooks often talk of Hebrew “borrowing” from Babylon or Egypt.

It has even become popular in conservative Christian schools to explain the Mosaic account of the creation and the flood in the light of the surrounding cultures of pagan Babylon and Egypt.

However as we implied in a previous post, these interpretations can only be taken seriously if a wealth of historic evidence to the contrary is ignored, as well as the bible itself. Conversely, if ancient Israels uniqueness cannot be explained in the light of the surrounding cultures, it must be conceded that the Israel had access to information from some other source.

The differences are many and striking, but for starters we will look at a comparison of Israels sanitation and medical practices with those of Egypt, Babylon and for perspective, China, in the same time period of the biblical patriarchs. Keep in mind that Moses was a prince of Egypt and educated at the highest level in Egyptian religious and medical practices. Abraham was called out of Ur, a major metropolis in ancient Babylon and would have been aware of all the basic religious and medicine and sanitation of that culture.

Starting with the birth place of Moses, let’s compare his strict sanitation practices with those of Egypt in his day. Well, it’s more accurate to say contrast with, because there is no comparison. Moses emphasized the quick burial of all human excrement and blood outside the camp, as well as the immediate burial of all dead animals and humans. In a law that wasn’t fully appreciated until the late 19th century in Europe, he insisted that no one who touched a dead or diseased person could re-enter a populated area until he had washed himself and his clothing in running water several times. The few herbs and plants he recommended for cleansing and medical use, like hyssop and marjoram, are known to have soapy and antiseptic properties.

Not so in Egypt or anywhere else in the ancient world in the time of Moses. Many ancient Egyptian papyri still exist, but almost all of them follow two main ones; the Ebers, and the Edward Smith, (named after their discoverers). From these we gain a wealth of information about what Moses would have been taught about sanitation and medical practices in Egypt. And it’s not for nothing that some medical historians labeled the Egyptian practices as “sewage pharmacology”. (1)

If a person had a splinter, he was to soak it in a mixture of worms blood and donkey feces. Donkey dung is a known source of tetanus spores, so that might have been a little hard on the patient mortality rates. If they had eye problems, they rubbed on various mixtures of cattle urine or pigs gall (bile). If babies were sick, they were fed whole mice, skinned, but not cooked or gutted. If the babies had eye problems, dead mice were rubbed on their eyes. The use of urine products and animal dung predominated through out the papyri.

Along with Babylon and the rest of the ancient world, Moses would have known of the “doctrine of signatures”used extensively in Egypt. This was the practice of using a drug or other object that resembled the malady in order to heal it. If a man was stabbed by a spear, a spear shaped leaf might be placed across the wound. If a person had a rash, red berries might be fed or spread on the area. While they may have occasionally got lucky in their use of this method, for the most part it probably proved ineffective.

All of these same practices were found in Babylon, where Abraham had grown up, but were used with a vengeance. In Babylon, even more than in Egypt, all disease and health problems were believed to be caused by demons or spirits. They not only practiced exorcism on sick people, but spent hours studying livers of sacrificed animals to divine what ailed a patient. They, like all other ancient cultures also spent much time studying star movement, the behavior of animals and other phenomena to make predictions on the health of the patient. They had over 1000 models of livers to look at to help them diagnose their patients.

The ancient Chinese followed all of these practices in pre-Tao China, and in Taoist teachings, complex hexagrams were burned and then studied for learning the cause and cure of various diseases. I could go on and on but I think this should suffice as a general overview of what Israels neighboring cultures were up to, and how they would have influenced Moses and the patriarchs. If they were the source of Moses’ writings on religion and medical practice.

Let me just point out that the writings of Moses are entirely bereft of all the practices of the Ancient world and particularly those of his Near East neighbors. Search as you might you will find the following absent from the Torah;

  • the use of urine and feces and other harmful treatments
  • the use of divination in medical diagnosis
  • the use of astrology
  • the use of the doctrine of signatures
  • the use of alchemy (prevalent in all the ancient world)
  • the attribution of all disease to demons or spirits

And to the contrary, you find laws of sanitation found nowhere else in the world, not even appreciated in Europe until the late 19th century.

How do we explain this striking uniqueness on the part of this one small nation of sheep and goat herders, who had been kept as slaves for over 400 years in the pagan nation of Egypt? Moses owes no debt to either Egypt or Babylon in this regard, it is certain. The bible say’s Moses received his revelation from a supernatural source, the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. Moses says he received supernatural revelation from the God of Abraham.

One thing is certain, he didn’t copy or borrow or learn his sanitation or medical practices from the surrounding Ancient near-Eastern community, as many academics both secular and religious like to suggest when talking about the creation or flood stories. What is the naturalistic explanation for the teachings that placed Moses light years ahead of the rest of us almost 4000 years ago? Those who routinely go to Babylonian  paganism to understand or interpret the religion of the ancient Hebrews, are silent on this question.

(1) ‘Thorwald, the Science and Secrets of Early Medicine, 1963, p. 86.


About notmanynoble

woodcutter from Washington State
This entry was posted in Sola Scriptura and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Sanitation and Medicine of Ancient Israel; Borrowed from Surrounding Cultures?

  1. Steven Posey says:

    Nice scholarship!


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