Hebraic Public Health

Wm. Curry Martin, M.D.
Prof. Of Pathology
University of Louisville School of Medicine 1927


           The concept of public health embrace sanitation, personal hygiene, and preventive medicine. Under sanitation we include factors, which control disease in the world external to the individual, such as water supply, sewage disposal, and inspection of foods. Under personal hygiene come the rules of daily living, which benefit the race as a whole by the production of vigor and longevity. Under preventive medicine come vital statistics, communicable disease, and child welfare.


Every civilization shows practically the same development in sanitation as the Hebrews. First we have the myths, the legends, and the allegories of their prehistoric antecedents. These men were always interested in sanitation from the standpoint of self-preservation. Prehistoric men sought food and good waters, and those that were unable to find these failed to survive. As men became more civilized, we begin to find artificial water supplies and bathing pools. Even today we measure the civilization of a country by its typhoid death rate. Architects tell us that in the next ten years every house that is built will have a bathroom for each bedroom

Up until the last seventy-five years Christians were brought up in the belief that the beginning of mankind on this planet started in the year 4004 B.C. Our antecedents accepted the Hebrew allegories as fact, verbally inspired, and not open to critical tests like other records. The Hebrew allegory changes from legend to historical importance about 1900 B.C. at the time of Abraham, grandfather of Jacob. Now Abraham was a contemporary of Hammurabi, known to the Hebrews as Amraphel, King of Shinar, which his throne at Babylon. The latter is entitled to the first place as the world’s first great ruler, codifying his laws, organizing, and conquering-a sort of Babylonian Alfred the Great. He was particularly careful about his laws governing the maintenance of camels and water supplies. Like Genghis Kahn, who came centuries later, he made lieutenants out of his captive kings.

The Babylonians were Semitic, and their religion and culture showed traces of that of the Egyptians and the Greeks. The Hebrew Semitic tribe was just beginning to see the light. Abraham, being a nomad, came in contact with all civilizations and acquired their culture, but refused to accept idolatry.

The prehistoric Jew, like the other prehistoric men, required food and water. Food and water were the requirements, and food and water were found. How very fitting then for the Jews to start their allegory by having their personal God to attend to all this the first week (Genesis Ch.1)- a beautiful Utopia except for Jehovah’s eighteenth amendment.

The next time we find Jehovah indulging in sanitation is in the form of flood relief work for Noah.

Sanitation appears again in the selection of the River Jordan by Lot when he and Abraham disputed over their flocks. Abraham evidently learned about the wells from Egypt, for no sooner had he returned from there than he began to build wells in the country of Abimechech, which was seized as fast as they were made. Civilization among the Hebrews was advancing, being assimilated from their more intelligent neighbors. Finally one finds a real artificial water supply in the second book of Kings, chapters 18-20: “ And the King of Assyria sent Tartan and Robsaris and Tabshaken to King Hezekiah with a great host against Jerusalem and when they were come up, they came and stood by the upper conduit of the upper pool.” Again in Chapter 32:30, we read “The same Hezekiah also stopped the upper water course of Gideon and brought it straight down to the west side of the city of David."

                                                 Sewage Disposal

It must be remembered that the Hebrews were at first a nomadic tribe, and no one expects a nomad to worry about excreta. However, when the Egyptians enslaved the Hebrews, one of them, Moses by name, devoted his early years to mastering all Egyptian knowledge. Egypt was well advanced in sanitation. Moses was clever, so he dressed up the Egyptian laws for the ignorant Hebrews with religious ecstasy. He himself became the whole of the Privy Council. “Thou shalt have a place also without the cam, whither thou shalt go forth abroad: and thou shalt have a paddle among thy weapons: and it shall be, when thou sittest down abroad, thou shalt dig therewith, and shalt turn back and cover that which cometh from thee: for Jehovah they God walketh in the midst of thy camp, to deliver thee, and to give up thine enemies before thee; therefore shall thy camp be holy, that he may not see an unclean thing in thee, and turn away from thee.” (Deuteronomy 23:12-15.)

A mighty man was Moses! Probable we of the South should stop and consider the ways of Moses. If we could transpose our public health science over into the hands of the Methodist Board of Temperance and Public Morals and the Ku Kluxers, we would have 90% of the southern rural communities properly sewaged instead of 10%. Hosannas would be sung for the deliverance, and shekels would fall into our hands.

Another lesson to be learned from Moses is his method of enforcing pure food laws. Here again he steals the knowledge of the Egyptians as to which foods are the best and which should be avoided. However, he does not set them up as scientific facts, but dresses them up in the beautiful pastel colors of religious hysteria. Moses promised the Hebrews wealth ad power if they carried out these laws, and the curse of Jehovah if they failed to live up to them. “These are the beasts which ye may eat: The ox, the sheep, and the goat, the heart and the gazelle, and the roebuck, and the wild goat, and the pygarg, and the antelope, and the chamois. And every beast that parteth the hoof, and hath the foot cloven in two, and cheweth the cud, among the beasts, that ye may eat.” (Deuteronomy 14:4-9)

                                               Bio –Statistics

In genesis 5:1-32, we find the ages attained in the direct male like from Adam to Noah, as well as the ages of each when the first son was born:

                                       Age attained                             Age when first son was born

Adam                                      930                                                   130
Seth                                        912                                                   105
Enosh                                      905                                                    90
Canaan                                    910                                                    70
Mahalalel                                 895                                                    65
Jared                                       962                                                   162
Enoeh                                      365                                                    65
Methuselah                              969                                                   187
Lameeh                                   777                                                   182
Noah                                       950                                                   500
            Average                      858                                                   156

          But later, in Genesis 6:1 and 2, “And it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born unto them, that the sons of god saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all that they chose.” As a result, God cut down the length of life to 120 years.

Now, ordinarily, in Eugenics, we are in the habit of referring to Gregor Johann Mendel (1882) as the discoverer of the laws of inherited characteristics. But some four or five thousand years before this Catholic priest was born, we find a young Hebrew herdsman making himself wealthy by the application of this law. Jacob served Laban seven years for the beautiful Rachel, and was given the weak-eyed Leah; so he served seven years more and was given Rachel. After the birth of Joseph by Rachel, Jacob asked for the following commission for his future services (Genesis 30:30-43): “I will pass through all thy flock today, removing from them all the speckled and spotted cattle and every black one among the sheep and the spotted and speckled ones among the goats and such shall by my hire… Then Jacob took rods of fresh poplar and of almond and of the plane-tree and peeled white streaks in them, and made the white appear which was in the rods; and he set these at watering places and the cattle conceived at watering places before these poles and brought forth accordingly.” Jacob waxed wealthy. Incidentally in genesis 18:35, there is recorded the first obstetrical death, that of Rachel when Benjamin was born.

                                  Communicable Diseases

Disease is mentioned frequently throughout the Old Testament, but there are only a few whose description can be interpreted. Thus, under children we find the curse of God descending upon David’s bastard son by Uriah’s wife. The child was struck sick as it entered its home, and died in seven days. Again, in I Kings, 17:17, we find the widow’s son falling sick and the sickness so sore he could hardly breathe. Elijah gave the child artificial respiration and saved him. (A lesson to leave the diagnosis to the pediatrics department.)

Worms are mentioned only once, but the beef tapeworm must have been an inhabitant of the intestines of every Hebrew at eh time that they were nomads. Even today in the Far East the beef tapeworms are so frequent among the herding nomads that a man without a tapeworm is as rare as a man without a country.

The following diseases are mentioned, but without enough description to discuss: Ague, abscess, atrophy consumption, dropsy, dumbness, deafness, fever, itch, inflammation, loss of appetite, palsy, scab, sunstroke, ulcer, and others. Even cleansing of the teeth is mentioned.

In II Kings, chapter 6, we find Jehovah answering Elijah’s prayer and plaguing the attacking Syrians with blindness. This is quite suggestive of an epidemic of trachoma, but in the same chapter it is stated that there existed a great famine in Samaria, making keratomalacia possible as a dietary deficiency disease.

Smallpox is never mentioned as such, but during the exodus from Egypt, when Jehovah was plaguing the Egyptians with lice, flies, frogs, grass-hoppers, etc., we read in chapter 9 (Exodus) that He also cursed them with an epidemic of boils and blains, while the cattle were suffering with a grievous murrain. The occurrence of the cattle epidemic and the concurrent suffering of the Egyptians with boils is at least suggestive of a plague of smallpox. We also know from a study of Egyptian mummies that smallpox existed among the Egyptians in 1200 B.C.

Dysentery (II Chronicles 21:12) is described, “Behold with a great plague will the Lord smite thy people, and they children, and thy wives, and thy goods, and thou shalt have great sickness by disease of thy bowels, until thy bowels fall out by reason of the sickness day by day. And the Lord smote him in the bowels with an incurable disease, and it came to pass that in the process of time after the end of two years his bowels feel out by reason of his sickness.” (Hemorrhoids?)

Cholera is probably referred to in Zachariah 14:12, “And this shall be the plague wherewith Jerusalem: their flesh shall consume away while they stand upon their feet, and their eyes shall consume away in their mouth.” In Psalms 91:3, we find the prophet describing the plague, exhorting Jehovah to deliver him from the noisome pestilence (Flatus?)

Laws for discerning leprosy (Leviticus 13:2) state: “When a man shall have in the skin of his flesh a rising or a scab, or a bright spot, and it became in the skin of his flesh the plague of leprosy, then he shall be brought unto Aaron the priest or unto one of his sons the priests: and the priests shall look upon the plague in the skin of the flesh: and if the hair in the plague be burned white, and the appearance of the plague of leprosy; and the priest shall look upon him and pronounce him unclean, etc.” Continuing, we learn that if the case were considered negative, it is quarantined for seven days and re-examined. If there is no change, progression of recession, the quarantine is continued for another seven days. If then the plague is dimmed, the patient is washed and freed, for it is but a scab.

But if the scab begins to spread, he is brought unto the priest and pronounced unclean (leprosy). If the flesh is as was, leprosy is the diagnosis, but if the flesh is only white, the case is an old one, and the patient is dismissed. If the patient has a boil, he is to be quarantined only if the overlying hair turns white. The plague upon the head and heard is unclean only if the spot is deeper than the skin and the hair becomes thin and yellow. Clothes of the victims had to be burned and their homes destroyed. A cure of the disease if given in II Kings 5:10, when Elisha commanded Naaman to bathe in the Rover Jordan seven times, “and his flesh became again like unto the flesh of a little child, and he was clean.”

                                          Personal Hygiene

In Leviticus 12, we find references to the purification of women after childbirth, and later (Leviticus 15) regulations for the cleansing of men and women after their issues.

For mental hygiene, we quote from the wisdom of Solomon to my confreres, the bachelors: “My son, why will ye not harken unto ht wisdom of thy fathers? Listen not to the voice of a strange woman, for her lips are as sweet as a honeycomb, and the words that dropeth are sweeter than honey, and her tongue is smoother than oil, but in the end she is bitter as wormwood and sharp as a two-edged sword.” (Proverbs 5:5)

For the married men: “Let thy fountain be blessed and rejoice with the wife of thy youth. Let her be as the loving kind and the pleasant doe; let her breasts satisfy thee at all times, and be thou ravished always with her love… Happy is the man that getteth wisdom and the man that findeth understanding. She is more precious than rubies and all the things thou canst desire are not to be compared with her. Length of days is in her right hand and in her left hand riches and honor.” (Proverbs 5:18).

The first venereal epidemic is recorded in Genesis 12:14 to 17: “And it came to pass that when Abraham was come unto Egypt, the Egyptians beheld the woman that she was fair. And the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house… and the Lord plagued Pharaoh and all his household with a great plaque on account of Sarah, Abraham’s wife.” This was undoubtedly an epidemic of gonorrhea, for in Genesis 20:2, the beautiful Sarah again goes into sleep with another ruler, Abimelech, and he was cursed by Jehovah with a great plague, he and all his wives and household, so that the wombs of the women were sealed off. Abimelech swore to god and to Abraham that he didn’t touch Sarah that night, but the very next chapter starts off with Sarah’s “immaculate conception” of Isaac- and Abraham had just been circumcised on his ninety-ninth birthday, and Sarah, although still beautiful, was just entering the menopause!

Punishment for incest and sodomy is described in Leviticus 20, and a primitive method of birth control is illustrated in Exodus 1:16, by the king of Egypt: “When ye do the office of a midwife to the Hebrew women, and see them upon the birth stool, if it be a son, then ye shall kill him…” However, Moses escaped, and even today, in spite of modern methods escapes still occur.

Anyone interested in the evolution and development of public health will be well repaid for time spent in reading the Old Testament, where many more additional and interesting references will be found.