I’m always fascinated by leads that shed light on early Church history, especially those that illuminate areas of history we know little about. One such lead comes from Exodus 15:26.
After traveling in the desert for three days with nothing to drink, Moses comes upon a pool of water at Marah. However, the water at Marah was bitter. The people complained and Moses sought the Lord’s help. God told Moses to throw a certain piece of wood into the water and the water became sweet. God then said to Moses:
“‘If you really listen to the voice of the LORD, your God … and do what is right in his eyes: if you heed his commandments and keep all his precepts, I will not afflict you with any of the diseases with which I afflicted the Egyptians; for I, the LORD, am your healer’” (Exodus 15:26).
The early Church fathers saw the wood as a foreshadowing of the cross, which sweetened the bitterness of the Law of Moses.
In itself, this passage is interesting, but once it is combined with two other elements it becomes illuminating.
The first element has to do with numbers. Hebrew, like many other ancient languages, didn’t use numbers. Instead, they used letters for numbers, as with Roman numerals where each letter has a value (“I” = one; “V” = five; “X” = 10 and so on). To write a number, one only has to combine different letters. An interesting off-shoot of this is that words have numerical values. For example, Jesus’ name “Yeshua” has a numerical value of 391. This will become important later.
The second element is healing in the early Church. Anyone familiar with the Acts of the Apostles knows that miraculous healings were abundant in the early Church, which occurred with the invocation of the holy name of Jesus (Acts 4:30). Now, we know this happened in Acts, but what happened afterward? Did it continue?
Curiously enough, a few early rabbinical writings address this phenomenon of healing. For example, one story relates how rabbi Eleazar ben Damah was bitten by a snake and a man named Jacob came to heal him in “…the name of Jesus son of Pantera.” But Jacob was prevented from coming to ben Damah and he died. The story ends with a blessing of ben Damah for dying in peace without transgressing the “hedge erected by the sages” (Tosefta-tractate Hullin 2:22-4 2:23). The “hedge erected by the sages” appears to be an effort by the rabbis to stop Christians from healing in Jesus’ name.
The final piece of this puzzle comes from another rabbinical work that involves Exodus 15:26. It is a short and simple condemnation:
“R. Akiba adds: He who reads the external books; and he who whispers over a wound, saying: All the sickness which I brought on Egypt I will not bring upon thee, etc. (Exodus 15:26). Abba Saul adds: He who pronounces the Name with its proper letters” (Tosefta Sanhedrin XII, 10).
It’s clear that Akiba ban is referencing Christians healing in the name of Jesus. But why didn’t the early Christians whisper the name of Jesus over the wound? Why quote Exodus 15:26 instead?
Noted Jewish scholar Louis Ginzberg proposes that the answer lies in the last words of the verse: “I YHWH (Yahweh) am your healer.” The numerical value of these words comes out to 391; the same numerical value as the name Jesus.
When we put all the pieces of the puzzle together, we can trace out what happens after Acts. It appears that certain measures were taken to stem the tide of healings and conversions to Christianity. At first, the use of the name “Jesus” was forbidden. So our forefathers did the next best thing: they whispered Exodus 15:26 over a wound, which had the same numerical value as the name Jesus. God honored this and continued to work miracles, until, eventually, whispering of Exodus 15:26 was banned as well. This is such a great example of our early fathers being “shrewd as serpents and simple as doves” in their efforts to make Jesus better known and loved.
Gary Michuta is an apologist, author and speaker and a member of St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Livonia. Visit his website at www.handsonapologetics.com.