This is the question I was asked by David and Catherine Sevier, the couple who is preparing the health track meetings that will be part of YWAM Together in Kansas City this year. As a result, this will be a premiere: this month, I am presenting the first topical study for Create a Learning Site.
YWAM Together is a global meeting of both YWAM staff and others involved as Christians in the different spheres of society. Officially, health is not normally counted as one of the seven spheres (family, religion, education, business, arts and entertainment, government, and media), but it probably should be. Pay attention to how much talk on TV and in other media relates to health issues and how much discipling is going on in this, and I think you will concede the point.
By the way, David and Catherine insist on making it a health track, not a medical track or a health care track, and the additional sphere is health, not medicine or health care.
As we will see, from a biblical perspective this makes excellent sense. Health is more than the absence of disease. We should not limit our focus to illness and to nurturing people back to health, to then stop and leave it there. In practice, however, this is usually exactly what health care does, even though the ideal is health, not healing or health care in this narrow sense.
It is true, of course, that the Bible speaks a lot about healing. In most cases, these healings take place in the context of proving the presence of the kingdom and authenticating its message. They do show that God favours health, but they tell us little about the “normal” ways of health in a discipleship context. In the case of Christians wrestling with illness or other health problems, this is the issue we are dealing with: discipleship or spiritual growth, not evangelism. In a discipleship context, there is normally no need for healing to be instantaneous and obviously miraculous. There is a need to include staying healthy as a subject, something that should be part of discipleship and discipling, even though this tends to be neglected in Christian circles.
So I will limit myself to health in a context of discipleship, bypassing the demonstrative function of the miraculous in evangelism.
One more note of introduction: The approach chosen here can only be taken as a preliminary exploration, since it leaves so much out. The idea of health appears in many contexts that do not use this term. My contribution is therefore far from complete. It is not based on an exhaustive study of the topic. Instead, it is a personal reflection on the question asked, building on a lifetime of studying and teaching the Bible but without any direct involvement in the health sphere.
So what does the Bible say about health?
So what does the Bible say about health? At first sight, not very much. The word “health” appears only 11 times in the English Standard Version (ESV). I will come back to these passages later.
There is relevant material beyond this, of course. First to come to my mind is the significant number of commandments in the Mosaic Law that have health benefits, such as:
- Not eating animals found dead (Dt. 14:21; they may carry an infectious disease)
- Abstaining from a number of animals, many of which come with health risks (Lev. 11)
- Isolating people with various skin diseases (Lev. 13-14)
- Burying excrements outside of the camp (Dt. 23:12-14)
- Keeping the Sabbath
However, most biblical scholars would argue that the original rationale and intent of these laws had nothing to do with health considerations. It is good for your health to regularly take a day off but this is not the reason stated for Sabbath-keeping. The issue with the other commands just listed is ritual purity. God was deemed too holy to bring anything associated with death into his presence, including someone who had just touched something dead. Not all the animals forbidden as food are dangerous. Some seem to be forbidden because they do not match the pure ideal (an animal chews the cud but its hoofs are not split; its hoofs are split but it does not chew the cud). Some of the skin conditions described in Leviticus 13 are not infectious.
We look at these and are amazed at how healthy some of these laws are. However, we recognize them as healthy, not because of something the text states but because we know this from other sources. The health benefits are almost accidental. They may well be providential. But they are not the reason given or the explicit aim. Although the health benefits are real, health fails as an explanation, because it cannot account for all the items in the passages referred to.
This also applies to the so-called Daniel fast. In Daniel 1, both Daniel and his friends abstained from meat and wine, eating only vegetables. Granted, it did benefit their health to eat mostly vegetables and pass on the presumably generous portions of meat (and wine) served at the king’s court. And granted, it would do many of us in the West good to feed on vegetables only for a while as well. However, health is not why they did it. Again, the issue was ritual purity: they did not want to defile themselves.
The Daniel plan and a Daniel fast may be good ideas but they are not “what the Bible teaches about health.” In none of these passages the biblical authors were “teaching health” to their readers.
Death as a Part of Life
Before we move on to the Bible’s more explicit statements relating to health, a word on death. One thing the evangelical movement needs to learn is to make death a more natural part of life. Some evangelicals are afraid to even use the word or to contemplate death as a possible outcome of an illness for fear of undermining faith and feeding doubt. The patriarchs and other heroes of faith in the Old Testament did not deal with death this way. On their deathbed, they gave instructions and shared words of blessing.
Not everything about death is negative. There are ways of living well and there are ways of dying well. Or not so well. Provided it does not come suddenly, in an instant, death is our last chance to do something well and our final opportunity to bring closure and leave a blessing.
There is much more to say about this, for which this brief exploration does not leave space, but this point has to be made: Thinking about healthy living and health care in a broader sense than curing disease has to consider both death and the process of dying.
Let’s turn now to those passages that explicitly refer to health. Nine of them are in the Old Testament and three of these use the Hebrew word shalom (2 Sam. 8:10; 1 Chron. 8:10; Ps. 38:10). This word is often translated peace but its meaning is broader than this. Depending on the context, it may also be translated with well-being, welfare, prosperity, or health.
This insight is worth gold (it was certainly was my wow moment in writing this paper). It makes clear how holistically the Bible thinks about health. Just as the biblical understanding of peace is not merely the absence of war, likewise it does not reduce health to the absence of disease. It does not even reduce it to physical well-being. To think biblically about health we must understand the Hebrew concept of shalom. It is God’s ultimate purpose for everything.
To think biblically about health we must understand the Hebrew concept of shalom.
Psalm 38 is particularly interesting in this context: “There is no shalom in my bones, because of my sin” (verse 3b). It is an insight that modern medicine has been slow to recognise and it continues to struggle with its application: human beings are a psychosomatic unity. We do not have a soul (Gr. psyche) and a body (Gr. soma); we are a psyche-soma that for all practical purposes functions as one entity. What happens in one dimension of our being influences other dimensions. The intricate connections between our physical, emotional, mental, social, and spiritual well-being are many. This is so foundational that it is worth restating. We need:
- Physical health
- Emotional health
- Mental health
- Social health
- Spiritual health
These dimensions are intricately connected. At times, it may be useful to distinguish them and talk about health in one of these areas only, as long as we keep in mind that in reality, these areas interact with each other. In the longer run, a lack of health in one area is likely to negatively affect other areas. There is one exception to this. We may be lacking physical health and yet be quite healthy in every other way. But let’s face it, there is usually something saint-like about people who manage this feat.
“Health”: Psalm and Proverbs
Psalm 41:3 does not actually use a word for health in Hebrew. A literal translation would be: The Lord turns his bed in or from sickness. Still, this Psalm as a whole confirms the point of the previous section. Verse 4 goes on to say: “Heal me, for I have sinned against you.” And the reason why God “turns his bed from sickness” is given in verse 1: “Blessed is the one who considers the poor!” In other words, the social health of an empathetic and generous person affects his physical and spiritual health.
Proverbs 16:24 (ESV) shows a similar connection:
Gracious words are like a honeycomb,
sweetness to the soul and health to the body.
The things people say about us and to us influence our physical health, presumably by affecting our mental and emotional well-being.
The word used in Proverbs 16:24 (marpee) means healing rather than health, as for instance in Proverbs 12:18 and 13:17, but the point remains the same. All three proverbs bring out of the profound health effects of spoken words.
No doubt many more examples of psychosomatic connections could be found both in the book of Psalms and in Proverbs.
“Health”: Isaiah and Jeremiah
When Hezekiah becomes ill and is told he will die, he prays: “Oh, restore me to health and make me live!” (Is. 38:16). Although the text does not use the noun health but a rare verb, we still gain a fuller insight into the biblical understanding of health. Hezekiah goes on to say: “Behold, it was for my welfare (shalom!) that I had great bitterness” (Is. 38:17a). In other words, the condition that Hezekiah desires is one of life and shalom – clearly more than the mere absence of disease.
The English text of Jeremiah three times uses the word health, in each case using the Hebrew word aruchah, meaning healing or repair (in the case of a wall). Jeremiah 8:22 speaks of the “health of the daughter of my people.” This obviously does not refer to physical health nor to the health of individuals. It is possible, therefore, to speak of the health of a community, in this case, the people of Judah. This opens up a whole new field of enquiry: What does it mean for a community to be healthy?
The remaining two verses in Jeremiah (Jer. 30:17 and 33:6) continue to speak of the future healing of this community:
Behold, I will bring to it health (aruchah) and healing (marpee, as in Prov. 16:24), and I will heal them and reveal to them abundance of prosperity (shalom) and security. I will restore the fortunes of Judah and the fortunes of Israel, and rebuild them as they were at first. I will cleanse them from all the guilt of their sin against me, and I will forgive all the guilt of their sin and rebellion against me. And this city shall be to me a name of joy, a praise and a glory before all the nations of the earth who shall hear of all the good that I do for them. They shall fear and tremble because of all the good and all the prosperity (shalom) I provide for it. (Jer. 33:6-9)
It should be clear now that health is a lot more than not being ill!
“Health”: New Testament
Only two verses remain. Referring to the healing of a lame man, Peter offers the explanation that Jesus has given him “perfect health” (Acts 3:16, ESV). The noun used (holokleria) appears only here in the New Testament and normally means wholeness or completeness. Since in this context it obviously refers to a physical healing, the translation in the ESV makes sense. The use of this word implies that there is an ideal condition of wholeness, which includes the ability to use all one’s faculties, to which people are restored in healing. Perhaps it is not too much to wonder if our focus in thinking about health and health care should not so much be on disease but on health as a state of completeness, a positive goal instead of a negative one?
3 John 2, the final verse to look at, makes for a fitting conclusion. It uses the verb hygiainoo (from the same root as our word hygiene):
Beloved, I pray that all may go well with you and that you may be in good health, as it goes well with your soul.
Again we see the holistic perspective on health: It is about the well-being of both body and soul together.
We also catch in this verse yet another glimmer of a foundation for a broader and more positive approach to health care than taking care of people once they have health problems. John the apostle – assuming he was indeed the author of this letter – thinks the health of his protégé Gaius important enough to pray for it.
If health is important enough to pray for it, health is also important enough to do more for it, beyond praying. We certainly do so with most other things we pray for.
So this very personal and relational touch in John’s writings opens the door to an aspect of discipleship that is perhaps not central, but certainly not unimportant either. Physical health or well-being, if we have it, is a gift. Its maintenance and preservation, however, is not, at least not entirely; in part, it is our responsibility to be good stewards of the gift, just as it is in other areas.
General Implications of the Mosaic Law
We have already looked at several specific commandments with health implications. There are also general implications flowing from the Mosaic Law.
1. A world based on law is a world in which we may hope to manage and have influence on our health.
To have some sort of law book suggests that life can be an orderly affair, that there are rules to live by, and that a measure of control is possible. We already find this foundational insight in the very first chapter of Genesis. The cosmos created by God is an orderly and predictable world. There are no spirits or other powers besides God involved. We are not subject to the caprices of demons and gods.
It is hard for us in the Western world to fully recognise the radical nature of this worldview change. When Genesis 1 was first written down, no one else outside of Israel had ever looked at the world like this.
This has profound implications for our thinking about health. Its presence or loss is not predominantly a matter of chance and even less of the whims of whatever spirit beings there may be.
2. In the Mosaic Law, people are made responsible for the way they live their lives (and handle their health).
The Mosaic Law calls upon everyone included in Israel to live by it – that is, to live a life of responsibility. This is not something for professionals only, although parts of the Mosaic system were the exclusive domain of priests or Levites. By far the larger part, however, was everyone’s task. There is a principle of democratization implied here that brings out the best and fullest meaning of the word: the people rule, and first and foremost they rule themselves. Again, the implications for thinking about health are profound.
3. The Mosaic Law provides us with motivation to live a good (which includes healthy) life.
The previous two points may sound very general, but then, we can hardly expect the Bible to give us all the ins and outs of good health stewardship. As I will argue in a moment, based on Isaiah 28, these ins and outs are there for us to discover.
The fact is, we have discovered and learned a lot about health, disease, and healing. At least in the Western world and even in much of the non-Western world it is often not a lack of information that is the problem. The problem is a lack of motivation. We don’t act on the information that we already have. We know what is good for us but don’t do it; we know what is bad for us but don’t stop it. More knowledge or more information is unlikely to change this (cf. smoking cigarettes).
The Torah is strictly speaking not a law book or a legal text. The Hebrew word Torah means instruction or teaching rather than law. It did not function like our law books do: as a repository of all the legal rules for judges and lawyers and others to turn to. It is far from complete or exhaustive. At least a third of it consists of stories. Its concluding volume is not a compilation of laws at all, but a sermon filled with exposition and exhortation, an urgent appeal to live in accordance with God’s instruction. In other words, the aim of much that is included in the Mosaic Law is to motivate rather than to inform. It may still serve this purpose if our aim is to teach health. It certainly provides a model for it.
The Way of Discovery
Isaiah 28 finishes with a wonderful wisdom-like reflection that shows God knows what he is doing, both in the ways of farming and in his dealings with Israel (Is. 28:23-29). The subject chosen happens to be agriculture, but its insight readily applies to other fields of human endeavour. There are a right way and a right sequence in agriculture, dependent on the actual crop. Each crop and its produce need to be handled in a different way. According to Isaiah, this is something the farmer was taught by God himself; it is part of God’s wonderful counsel and his excellent wisdom (Is. 28:29).
But if we ask how the farmer learned these things, we find that there was a long process of discovery with much trial and error. This fits well with a belief in an orderly universe that can be understood.
In health care, it is no different. Things have to be learned through a long process of experimentation and discovery. This is how God teaches us. We don’t expect to read in the Bible how agriculture in the 21st century is to be conducted. Neither should we expect a complete blueprint for health care and healthy living in the Bible. But it does provide us with a foundation and a starting point.
I am going to give the final word to a Jewish thinker whose work is counted among the Apocrypha, a collection of Jewish writings dating back to biblical times but not part of the Bible. For good reason: not everything in his work is great, as you will see in a moment, but it is worth reading. His name is Jesus Sirach. I include this quotation because it demonstrates how the foundation of the Hebrew Scriptures could disciple someone living more than 2000 years ago in his thinking about health:
Healthy sleep depends on moderate eating;
he rises early, and feels fit.
The distress of sleeplessness and of nausea
and colic are with the glutton.
If you are overstuffed with food,
get up to vomit, and you will have relief [I am not sure if this is good advice!].
Listen to me, my child, and do not disregard me,
and in the end you will appreciate my words.
In everything you do be moderate,
and no sickness will overtake you. (Sir. 31:20-22, NRSV)
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Standard Bible Society, 2001)
The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989)