Biblical Healing

Although the Bible frowns upon magical healing practices, a clear distinction between medicine and magical healing developed only gradually.

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Since Israelite priests and prophets closely understood the divine connection to health and healing through sacrifice, prayer, repentance, or fasting, they, rather than physicians, were often consulted in cases of illness. Priestly sacrifice and purification rituals were performed, given the perceived link between illness and ritual impurity.

Yet traditional scholarship has maintained that these rites, unlike ancient pagan exorcism practices, were not intended to combat evil powers through spells or incantations. Rather, prayers for the forgiveness of sins were considered effective against disease; psalms of confession and petition were recited only in the first person, rather than by a priest, and ritual purification occurred only after sickness had passed. Thanks and offerings were brought only later by those who were healed through God's will.

Magical Healing in Biblical Times: Recent Scholarship

Convincing recent scholarship, however, contends that even in biblical times, healing practices involving magical spells, incantations, and exorcisms had found considerable expression. This was especially true in those Jewish communities influenced by Egyptian, Midianite or Roman culture…. The book of Numbers documents Moses fashioning an image (later destroyed by King Hezekiah) known to magically heal serpent bites. I Kings, as well as Josephus, depict Solomon as a magician who could repel demons with his incantations, although the Mishnah records Hezekiah's suppression of this "Book of Cures," given its use as a substitute for prayer.

The Apocrypha also documented folk medicine practices featuring the angel Raphael, who brought health and healing in the name of God. According to Philo and Josephus, the Essenes were particularly interested in physical and spiritual healing. The community at Qumran embellished the story of Abraham's healing of Abimelech, while the Dead Sea Scrolls record Abraham healing on behalf of the pharaoh by expelling a plague caused by a demon.

Jewish Healing in the Post-Biblical Tradition

Judaism in the post-biblical period witnessed an increase in the use of various healing remedies, including exorcism of demons and the use of amulets. In the century following the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., Josephus described the rise of prophetic magicians who largely replaced the Temple priests in meeting individual needs for atonement, guidance, and healing. Such magical healing practices, which included exorcism and foretelling the future, reflected not only the decline of the institutionalized priesthood, but also the lack of a systematic practice of medicine and widespread suffering in the culture at large.

Charismatics--whether magicians, exorcists, witch doctors, healers or counselors--became increasingly revered, and new groups and institutions were formed around them. Magical healing stories were now widely circulated, featuring special powers of figures such as Elijah or Elisha, or of later rabbis such as Hanina ben Dosa and Yohanan ben Zakkai.

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Laura J. Praglin received her Ph.D. in religion and the human sciences from the University of Chicago Divinity School. She holds master's degrees from Chicago and Yale in religion and social work, and is an assistant professor in the Department of Social Work at the University of Northern Iowa.