Throughout the Bible, bones have been used to denote ideas that range from the beginning of life to its end. In many ways, references made to this part of the human anatomy have been akin to the way in which humans consider it today. However, while in many other ways references are colloquial, it is possible to find places in the Bible where the importance of the bone and its marrow as understood today in medical science is also acknowledged. In this way, bones are seen in the Bible not just to contain and constitute the framework for the human anatomy, but to be the seat of several important processes that support human life.
The very first reference made to bones of the human body within the Bible speaks of the birth or creation of Eve. This was done through the removal of a “rib” from the side of Adam, from which Eve was fashioned. Adam is then quoted to have said, “This is now bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman’ for she was taken out of man” (Genesis 2:23). This first reference to bones speaks of the uniqueness of the human being, having its own special skeletal frame that distinguishes it from other species.
It demonstrates that the Bible recognizes man as a distinct species, whose bone structure serves as one of the primary phenotypical attributes that connects Adam and Eve, these two members of the same species. Furthermore, in using the term “bone of my bone,” Adam refers also to the idea that humans reproduce in like kind, and that any form of progeny that issues from a human shall have a similar bone structure to the persons from whom he/she came. In contrast to this, the second mention of bones in the Bible is a specific reference to death.
In this passage, Joseph demonstrates his awareness of the fact that once he dies, his bones will constitute most of what is left of him. He says to the children of Israel, “[…] you must carry my bones up from this place” (Genesis 50: 25). This demonstrates the knowledge of ones bones as being the part of the body structure that survives after decomposition of the body has taken place. The idea created through this reference is one that considers the bones of a human being as a sort of memorial of the particular person from which it came.
Though a person’s skeletal structure is not necessarily considered a unique expression of that person’s identity, it is now known that a person’s DNA can be extracted from bones (and teeth)—and this important structure of the body does point specifically to particular human (Kalmar et al. , 2000). Therefore, the idea of the bones as a person’s memorial does not seem to be very far from true, especially since, unlike most other parts of the body, bones neither break down through decomposition nor essentially lose the DNA which contains the memory of the person’s constitution (2000).
Further reference to death in conjunction with bared human bones is given in the Bible as a warning concerning ceremonial uncleanness. Numbers 19:16 reads, “[…] anyone who touches a human bone or grave will be unclean for seven days. ” It would have been known then, as it is now, that bones remain covered by the flesh unless something adverse has taken place that rushes the human being toward sickness or death. This uncovering of the bones (via broken or decomposed skin and flesh) does indeed have much to do with sickness, pain, and even contagion.
Therefore, anything said to come in contact with the bones of one who has lost all its covering (that is, its flesh) is considered unclean. Decomposition is now known to be attended by bacteria and other micro-organisms that can cause disease. In this place, therefore, the reference to bones also demonstrates knowledge of diseases caused by bacteria that are present within the body in its living state and that may be transported to the carcass once death has taken place. The process of decomposition—which precedes the uncovering of the bones—is in large part due to the work of bacteria.
Diseases caused by micro-organisms of this sort can be transmitted through such vectors as flies, which are known to attend the carcasses of dead men. Further reference in the Bible to bones as being central to the health and well being of the human being can be found in the passage in Job in which any harm done to the bones is considered enough to cause immense and degrading physical harm. The devil speaks to God of Job and says, “A man will give all he has for his own life. But stretch out your hands and strike his flesh and bones, and he will surely curse you to your face” (Job 2: 4-5).
This contrasts harm to the bones with the health of the human being, showing how the one (health) depends on the other (bones). Though the breaking of the bones is usually considered a temporary and fixable problem, it is now known that other diseases of the bone can be detrimental to the health of the human being. One example of this is cancer. Once this has developed in (or metastasized to) the bone, the human who suffers from this is considered to be at a stage that takes him/her very close to death (Luger, et al. , 2005).
Related to this is the reference in Proverbs to this kind of bone sickness. The passage says, “A wife of noble character is her husband’s crown, but a disgraceful wife is like a decay in his bones” (Proverbs 12:4). This refers to the deep-rooted and enduring kind of sickness and intense pain of the bones that is characterized by bone cancer (2005), and this demonstrates that the Bible shows awareness of the importance of bone health. Job’s subsequent illness has been described as one that caused his flesh to rot and practically fall from his bones through malnutrition.
The visibility of ones bones beneath one’s skin is even today a testimony of great illness. Countries steeped in poverty are filled with citizens that resemble skin-covered skeletons as their bones are apparent within their frames. This kind of illness is represented in Bible in reference to Job’s bones. He says, “I am nothing but skin and bones” (Job 19:20). His sickness had so robbed his body of nutrients that represents almost all that is left of him.
He is close to death and is afraid, and this too is represented through allusion to his bones. When this sickness first comes upon him he confesses that “fear and trembling seized me and made all my bones to shake” ((Job 4:14). Action and work are possible because of the ability the skeletal frame gives humans to move. They are also possible through the range of motion granted by the ability of one group of bones to more relative to others. This ability comes from the joints, which allow twisting, turning, sliding, and other forms of movement.
This is corroborated later on in the Bible in a passage from Job that demonstrates the importance of the skeletal frame within the body as one upon which all other aspects of the body hinge. Job says of God, “Did you not […] clothe me with skin and flesh and knit me together with bones and sinews? ” (Job 10: 10-11) The use of the phrase “knit me together” demonstrates an acknowledgement of the job of bones as one that holds other parts of the body together. This especially acknowledges the work of joints and points of insertion of muscles on bones.
The importance of the bones as a foundation for the other parts of the body that control motion and uprightness is also shown in the Bible passage concerning the Valley of Dry Bones, in which Ezekiel causes some scattered human bones to come together to reform the skeleton. Ezekiel recounts: “And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them […] they came to life and stood up on their feet” (Ezekiel, 37:6-10).
As bones are considered the building blocks of the body’s skeletal framework, these human beings are able to stand and walk upright because of the support and connections of these bones. One more reference to bones in the Bible that is of great importance is one in which Elisha’s bones are able to restore the life of a dead man. Though this is in reference to the anointing that was placed upon Elisha and the power of God that still resided in his bones, this episode can be compared to the tremendous life-giving power that bones have in their marrow.
The bone marrow contains stem cells as well as other features necessary for the creation of red blood cells—and as the importance of the blood can never be overstated, these processes are crucial for the continued survival of any human being (Chasseing, et al. , 2001; Chong, 2007). However, the account of Elisha’s bones restoring the life of another appears to be remarkably prescient, in light of the newly discovered ability of marrow to be transplanted from one person to another.
Bone marrow transplants are used to treat patients who have a wide range of diseases (2001; 2007), such as “leukemia, aplastic anemia, lymphomas such as Hodgkin’s disease, multiple myeloma, immune deficiency disorders and some solid tumors such as breast and ovarian cancer” (Stewart, 1992). The importance of marrow as a substance that, among other things, helps boost the immune system and give life to an otherwise ebbing blood flow is prefigured from this biblical reference. The anatomical references in the Bible to the bone and its marrow are often metaphorical and colloquial.
However, the use of the terms usually demonstrates (at the very least) an underlying understanding of many of the things modern humans now know about the bone. References are made throughout the biblical text to the bone as a framework for the body and the scaffolding for such other anatomical structures that allow for motion and uprightness. The arrangement of the bones in humans is also demonstrated as an important structure that separates us from other creatures of the earth. Sickness and decay of the bones is also mentioned in the Bible in a way that can be paralleled to such fatal abnormalities as bone cancer.
Finally, the powers of the bone to heal can be paralleled to the life-giving surgical procedure of bone marrow transplantation currently in wide practice. References Bible, The. (1970). New International Version. Grand Rapids: Zondervan. Chasseing, N. A. , E. Hofer, R. H. Bordenave, C. Shanley, & L. S. Rumi. (2001). “Bone marrow fibroplasts in patients with advanced lung cancer. ” Brazilian Journal of Medical and Biological Research. 34(11), 1457-1463. Chong, A. K. S. , A. D. Ang, J. Goh, J. Hui, A. Lym, E. Lee, & B. Lim. (2007).
“Bone marrow- derived mesenchymal stem cells influence early tendon healing in a rabbit Achilles tendon model. ” The Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery. 89, 74-81. Kalmar, T. , C. Z. Bachrati, A. Marcsik, & I. Rasko. (2000). “A simple and efficient method for PCR amplifiable DNA extraction from ancient bones. ” Nucleic Acids Research. 18(12). Luger, N. M. , D. B. Mach, M. A. Sevick, & P. W. Mantyh. (2005). “Bone cancer pain: from model to mechanism to therapy. ” Journal of pain and symptom management. 29(5), 32- 46. Stewart, S. (1992). Bone Marrow Transplants. Eds. M. S. Tallman, MD & P. J. Stiff, MD. Highland Park: BMT Newsletter.