For the week of February 7, 2009 / 13 Shevat 5769
Torah: Shemot / Exodus 13:17 - 17:16
Haftarah: Shoftim / Judges 4:4 - 5:31

Cause and Effect

If you will diligently listen to the voice of the LORD your God, and do that which is right in his eyes, and give ear to his commandments and keep all his statutes, I will put none of the diseases on you that I put on the Egyptians, for I am the LORD, your healer. (Shemot / Exodus 15:26; ESV)

Through Moses, God promised that if the people of Israel would obey his commandments, they would not be afflicted with the diseases experienced by the Egyptians. I don't know if the reference to disease is limited to the ten plagues or to diseases in general. Either way begs the question: what is the relationship between obedience to God and personal health?

Some think that there is a direct correlation between keeping the commandments and health as if God's regulations are healthy in and of themselves. For example, it is generally agreed that pork is far more prone to certain kinds of harmful bacteria than beef, especially in a culture in which modern hygiene was unknown. Eating biblically defined clean animals would have been healthier than eating biblically defined unclean animals regardless of whether the eater was aware that this distinction had anything to do with God's commandments.

There are other Old Covenant regulations that seem to have a direct correlation to health, such as the handling of human waste. There are still places in the world that don't manage sewage properly and suffer from easily avoidable disease. Also, if societies would follow the biblical sexual laws, they would avoid a great deal (if not all) of sexually transmitted diseases.

It is difficult to deny that at least in some cases a direct correlation between God's regulations and personal health does exist, but there is something about trying to understand God's Word in this way that undermines God's own intention in communicating his will to us.

There is something curious about the verse I quoted. While on one hand it sounds as if keeping God's commandments is the way to avoid disease, the basis of health according to this verse is not adherence to a healthy lifestyle per se, but the activity of God in response to the people's obedience: "I will put none of the diseases on you that I put on the Egyptians, for I am the LORD, your healer." The Torah doesn't say that keeping God's commands will keep the people healthy, but rather that God himself will prevent disease in response to obedience. Moreover, it is instructive that in this context God calls himself "the LORD, your healer," indicating that it is God who makes and keeps his obedient people healthy, not their lifestyle.

Scientifically oriented people (which I believe includes most people reading or listening to this) have difficulty grasping such a concept, since we have been conditioned to look at life through a lens of strict physical cause and effect. Again, I am not saying that direct correlations between God's commands and human health do not exist, but rather that the true basis of how all this works is spiritual, not physical. Therefore a scientific analysis of God's commandments is not the key to health and is certainly not what the Torah is teaching here. What God was seeking to impress upon the people was their need to obey him. It was not an encouragement to discover effective techniques in the achieving of physical health.

This is not to say that we should neglect God's Word. Far from it! As we have read, we should be diligent to listen to God's voice and to do what is right in his eyes, being attentive to his commandments and keeping his statutes. Exactly what this entails under the New Covenant is a different issue, but let's not reduce God's Word to simple practical advice detached from the One who has spoken them. Instead, let us obey God's Word, because we love him who loves us and knows what is best for us.

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