The First Testament is not the first place that a Christian turns to study the concept of healing. It is often not even the last place. For many Christians, the First Testament is a dusty old book that sounds ancient. These Jesus followers have a First Testament “folk canon” which is certain favorite passages that are usually read with a set of Second Testament glasses.
It is important to remember that the Scripture of the early ecclesiae was what we have come to call the First Testament. Of course, they did not call it by such a name. We must keep in mind that Jesus lived and moved in what we would call a First Testament economy. The concepts so familiar to us from the Second Testament were not yet revealed to those living and watching Jesus at work. They had to understand his work through their patterns of thought. These thought patterns are usually not taken into consideration by “modern folk” when they come to read Scripture, especially the First Testament.
It is fair to say that we have either thrown the First Testament out like Marcion did in the Second Century or we have chosen to allegorize it and make its meaning unsure. Or with Luther, we have taken a Christological approach and if a passage “urges Christ” it must be referring to him. In addition, we may read with Calvin’s glasses and see it purely typological. These ideas are the interpretative inheritance (simplified for sure) of how we come to the First Testament when we read it.
To help us get a fuller grasp of the subject of healing we must turn to the foundational books of Scripture and see what they offer us as religious heritage. In the First Testament, we find two different streams of thought about God’s interaction with humankind and healing. The first is often called the Deuteronomic Code.
The second element is the one on which Jesus based his teaching and was the base from which he acted.
The Deuteronomic Code
The Hebrew First Testament is essentially broken up into three parts: the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings. The Law is the first five books of the Old Testament, namely, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. In the first book, Genesis, we have the stories of the beginning of the world and the beginning of a people of God. In Exodus, we have the theological center of Israel’s history, the Lord-Servant Covenant given to Moses. Essentially this covenant, built on an ancient model, says that as a redeemed people of God that if Israel kept the covenant stipulations (summarized as Ten Commandments), God would bless them. If, however, they did not keep these stipulations, that God would bring curses into their lives.
This Lord-Servant Covenant is given a second time in Deuteronomy from which the name Deuteronomic Code arose. The Hebrews lived in a mindset that suggested that breaking covenant with God would only bring about ruin while keeping it would bring about blessings. The basic attitude of this codified way of life is summarized in Deuteronomy 32.39 in five lines of poetry:
“See now that I myself am he!
There is no god besides me.
I put to death and I bring to life,
I have wounded and I will heal,
and no one can deliver out of my hand.
For them, God had the power of life and death (see also Exodus 4.11f). The mindset of the ancient Hebrew was that God was the giver of all good things and equally he was seen as the dispenser of misfortune, pain, and sickness of all kinds.
Sickness was believed to be God’s rebuke for humankind’s sin. Because there was no conception of the afterlife in which there would be reward or punishment which came to an individual because of his/her sin, each had to receive its reward in the here and now. From the beginning, the Law went into detail about the kind of disease God would send upon those that did not live according to the covenant stipulations. Deuteronomy lists some of them. “
The Lord will smite thee with the botch of Egypt, and with the emerods, and with the scab, and with the itch, whereof thou canst not be healed.
The Lord will strike you with wasting disease, with fever and inflammation, with scorching heat and drought, with blight and mildew, which will plague you until you perish (Deuteronomy 28.22).
…the Lord will send fearful plagues on you and your descendants, harsh and prolonged disasters, and severe and lingering illnesses. He will bring on you all the diseases of Egypt that you dreaded, and they will cling to you. The Lord will also bring on you every kind of sickness and disaster not recorded in this Book of the Law, until you are destroyed. (Deuteronomy 28.59-61).
No question about it. Sickness was looked upon in the First Testament as being sent by God to punish Israel for breaking the covenant. Sickness indicated a breach between God and humankind.
In addition to this belief system was the idea that Israel had no developed concept of evil spirits as the cause of sickness. Demons had no place in the theological economy of the First Testament. The angels were only seen as messengers to carry out the will of God. The idea of spiritual powers independent of Yahweh in their actions came in the era after the exile. It is fair to say that this was one of the central beliefs of the First Testament thought about healing. However, some of the books in the First Testament were offered to answer the obvious questions about why righteous people suffered (Job, Psalms 37, 73, Habakkuk). We must note that it was not until late in the history of Jewish belief that the individual was seen as responsible for his or her sins. The early belief was centered around the community. As an example, when David sinned, all Israel suffered.
An Alternative Belief
One of the things that is so amazing about the First Testament is that the above convictions are not the only ones that it expresses. There was another thought pattern about healing and sickness that the Second Testament was preserved. This additional theology about healing in the First Testament is not as obvious as the Deuteronomic Code. As we stated earlier, this is the strand of theology upon which Jesus based his teaching, and was the basis from which he acted. There was never a question of whether God could heal.
- There are the stories in the First Testament of barrenness, which was considered the result of divine disfavor, being healed (Sarah: Gen 18.10, 14; Samson’s mother: Judges 13.5, 34; Hannah: 1 Sam 1.19-20;
- the Shunammite woman: 2 Kings 4.16-17)
- Two children healed in the ministry of Elijah and Elisha (1 Kings 17.17-23, 2 Kings 4.18-37)
- Namaan’s leprosy was healed (2 Kings 5.1-14)
- Scattered through the Psalms is this theme (Psalm 41, 46, 74, 91, 103, 116, 121, and 147)
What is interesting is that these stories are peripheral to the main thought of the Hebrew religion.
In addition to this First Testament strand of belief, the intertestamental period brought new exposure to the concept of evil. The idea of this present evil age was born and the theology of the kingdom came into existence. What was peripheral to the official Hebrew religion healing of the day became a central focus in the ministry of Jesus. Healing was a way of pushing back the presence of the evil one and his kingdom. In summary, we can say that Jesus’ view of healing was at variance with the mainstream of the Hebrew religion.
Community Discussion Questions
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- What is your personal First Testament “folk canon” i.e., what books or passages do you read the most?
- Which of the four ways of reading the First Testament do you ascribe to: throw it out by not reading it, allegory, seeing Christ everywhere, or everything is a type of something in the Second Testament?
- How does this short overview of the First Testament’s two considerations about healing help you understand the way Jesus viewed healing?