A Theology of Hand Washing

A Theology of Hand-Washing


I recently had the opportunity to do some internet research on the subject of the history of hand-washing. While reviewing a number of articles on the subject; http://www.accessexcellence.org/AE/AEC/CC/hand_badckground/php; it was clear that the perception of the history of hand-washing is generally thought of as starting about 1843 with Oliver Wendell Holmes who advocated hand-washing to prevent childbed fever.


In the late 1840s the history shifts to the work of Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis. He was working in a hospital in Vienna Austria and observed that the mortality rates in a delivery room staffed by medical students was three times higher than that of a delivery room staffed by midwives. He concluded that perhaps there was something happening when the medical students came back from their lessons in an autopsy room. He had the students wash their hands in a chlorinated solution and soon the morality rates dropped to less than one percent. Dr. Semmelweis’s data seemed to allow one to draw the conclusion that hand-washing was a beneficial and healthy process that could be generalized to other hospital areas. However, it appears that the other doctors ridiculed the data and did not want to participate in a hand washing program.


In the 1870s it appears that Louis Pasteur drew the same conclusions as Dr. Semmelweis had done. He also saw the connection between hand-washing and reduction of infection and attempted to influence doctors to draw the same conclusions as he had done. His efforts were also ridiculed.


In 1910, Josephine Baker M.D. started a program to teach hand washing techniques to child care providers and a group of doctors protested this sending a petition to the Mayor “that it was ruining their medical practice by …..keeping babies well.” Again, this response was an interesting response by people claiming to want to help others stay well.


None the less, it appears that through the devoted efforts of many people hand-washing, and the philosophy thereof, seems to be the accepted philosophical practice in the hospitals and among health professionals. There is even general agreement that hand washing is the single most important means of preventing the spread of infection. With this thought it mind it is interesting to note that even though most people agree that hand-washing is the first line of defense against the spread of infection, yet the statistics indicate that modern hospital professionals only have around a 45-50% compliance rate, and the CDC, Center for Disease Control, reports that in some places the rate goes as low as 29%.




The above statistics are staggering when one thinks of the fact that the CDC indicates that there are 1.7 million cases of hospital based patient infections, resulting in 50,000 to 90,000 patient deaths. This is basically death from a disease that one did not have when they went to the hospital. So the place of safety and health produces a lot of disease that could be radically reduced if all followed through with what they philosophically agreed to.


Now that we have a little idea of the problem let us briefly discuss the theology of hand-washing. In Leviticus 15:11 we find the following counsel from God: “And whomsoever he toucheth that hath the issue, and hath not rinsed his hands in water, he shall wash his clothes, and bathe himself in water, and be unclean until the even.” So even though the internet is able to push the idea of hand-washing back to 1843, in actuality God had spoken to this issue long ago in the health laws given to the Jewish nation. God wanted His people to role model to the world what following God’s counsel would do for them in the physical realm as well as the spiritual realm. So, as it has always been, God knows what He is doing and all of those who are willing to follow Him in the great things, and the little things, will be blessed by a better way of life.


In conclusion, most everyone in the United States agrees that hand washing is a benefit to them and would be good practice if everyone did it. None the less, most people who believe in hand-washing do not do it. This behavioral disconnect, between belief and practice, is very common at all levels of life, and is especially prevalent in the spiritual life. For example, we all know that almost everybody agrees that stealing is not good and is not right, but more than 50% of Americans cheats on taxes. So what can be done about it? I would encourage hospitals to continue to train regarding hand-washing. They could even bring in the theological/spiritual issues and encourage people to ask God for help to do what they will not do on their own. But whatever they do hand-washing needs to be taught, and be taught with the full history of God in mind. It would also help if the thought was encouraged, that since God was so sharp to know about hand-washing are there other ideas in the Bible that could be beneficial to mankind and help them with other issues in life? And always remember that whenever we listen to God we will be blessed.