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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament


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DROPSY.—As the name (Gr. ὕδρωψ)* [Note: Not found in NT, only the adj. ὑδρωτικο; occurring in Luke 14:2.] would seem to imply, this disease is characterized by an accretion or accumulation of water in the cellular tissue or serous cavities. In the only place in the NT where a reference to it occurs, no mention is made as to whether the patient suffered from a general anasarea or a local dropsical swelling (Luke 14:2). The writer simply uses the adjective ὑδρωπικός (sc. ἄνθρωπος) instead of the noun. This is, however, in strict accordance with the usage of Greek medical writers, as we have it in the works of Hippocrates, Dioscorides, and Galen. That the disease was not unknown to the authors of some of the OT writings appears from the description of the trial by ordeal of a wife suspected of infidelity to her husband (Numbers 5:11-31). In Numbers 5:21-22 part of the punishment inflicted on the guilty woman was a dropsical swelling (cf. Josephus Ant. iii. xi. 6), which looks as if dropsy used to be considered as an affliction sent by God upon the wicked for continued wilful sin (cf. Psalms 109:18, and see also the Mishnic tractate Shabbath xxxiii. 1), and especially for the sin of self-indulgence (cf. Horace, Carm. ii. ii. 13, ‘crescit indulgens sibi ditus hydrops’).

The healing of the dropsical man is introduced by St. Luke as part of a narrative which is peculiar to his Gospel, if, indeed, the parable in Luke 14:16-24 be not identical with that in Matthew 22:2-14—a conjecture which does not seem likely (see, however, Wright’s Synopsis of the Gospels in Greek, p. 273 f.).

St. Luke alone of the Evangelists tells of Jesus being invited to partake of the hospitality of the Pharisees and of His accepting their invitations on three different occasions: ‘to eat’ (Luke 7:36), ‘to breakfast’ (Luke 11:37), ‘to eat bread’ (Luke 14:1). It was on one of these occasions, as He was sitting probably at breakfast or the midday meal (ἄριστον, Luke 14:12) on the Sabbath, that He healed the dropsical man.

Like the story of the healing of the woman with the crooked spine, told in the preceding section, it furnishes a vivid illustration of the way in which the protracted controversy about the Sabbath rest was conducted by Jesus against the Pharisaic sabbatarians of His time (cf. Mark 2:23 to Mark 3:5, Matthew 12:1-13, Luke 6:1-11; Luke 13:10-17, John 5:9-18). It is not easy to determine whether the diseased man was specially introduced into the house for a malignant purpose, or whether he appeared there unbidden in order to claim the sympathy and the help of Jesus. The presence of ἰδού seems to imply that the latter was the case, and that the host was as much surprised as any one else at the turn of events. In any case he could not have been an invited guest, as Jesus could not in that event, with courtesy, I have dismissed him when healed, as St. Luke says He did (ἀπέλυσεν, Luke 14:4). Whatever was the immediate cause of the man’s presence, Jesus utilized the opportunity thus afforded to emphasize once again His teaching on the Sabbath question. Here was a man afflicted with a most inveterate and dangerous malady, indicative of deeply rooted organic disease, and, according to contemporary belief, springing from moral as well as from physical sources. It was, moreover, a disease well known to those present; and it seems to have been more or less prevalent in that region down to recent times (see Jewish Intelligence, 1842, p. 319).

The persistent character of the espionage to which Jesus was subjected is well expressed by the periphrastic imperfect of ταρατηρεῖσθαι (Luke 14:1), a verb which is almost confined, in NT usage, to St. Luke (cf. Luke 6:7; Luke 20:20, Acts 9:24; see also Mark 3:2 and Galatians 4:10).

The question addressed by Jesus on this occasion to ‘the lawyers and Pharisees’ aptly illustrates His method of ‘carrying the war into the enemy’s camp’ (cf. Luke 13:15, Matthew 12:11 f., and Luke 7:41 f.). The effect of the question, which placed them on the horns of an ugly dilemma, is vividly narrated. They were forced to be silent because they were completely nonplussed (οἱ δὲ ἡσύχασαν, Luke 14:3). This verb, which occurs in the NT only once outside of St. Luke’s writings (see 1 Thessalonians 4:11), is often used in the sense of a silence produced by superior or determined argument (cf. Acts 11:18; Acts 21:14; see also Nehemiah 5:8 LXX Septuagint). The nature of the difficulty, in which Jesus placed His enemies, will be understood if we remember the almost incredible minuteness with which the law of the Sabbath was treated by the Jewish Rabbins, and the childish way in which they regulated whether a physician should perform a deed of mercy on that day (see Schürer, HJP [Note: JP History of the Jewish People.] ii. ii. pp. 96–105; Edersheim, Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, App. xvii., and ii. pp. 59–61; Farrar, Life of Christ, vol. i. pp. 431–441).

Whatever might be the differences between the schools of Shammai and Hillel as to the class of works forbidden on the Sabbath day, the general practice of the Jews themselves was based on the recognition that danger to life superseded the Sabbath law, and the question of Jesus points out this with force. If they allowed a man to save his son or his ox from a position of imminent danger, and yet considered the Sabbath rest unbroken, how much stronger claim had a man, suffering from an incurable malady, upon Him whose power to heal had again and again been manifested?

It is possible, perhaps, to trace an element of scorn in Jesus’ attitude on this occasion. The conjunction of the words υἱος and βοῦς is at least remarkable, and points to vehemence on His part in pressing the argument. The very feast at which He sat as guest was a proof of insincerity in their attitude. How prevalent the abuse of Sabbath feasting became amongst the Jews is noticed by St. Augustine (Enarr. in Psalms 91:1 : ‘Hodiernus dies sabbati est: hunc in praesenti tempore otio quodam corporaliter languido et fluxo et luxurioso celebrant Judaei’).

St. Luke does not tell us plainly whether Jesus used any visible means in performing the cure of the dropsical man. He, however, uses one word which may point to a treatment similar to what He employed on other occasions (cf. ἐπιτιθέναι τὰς χεῖρας, Luke 4:40; Luke 13:13, Mark 5:23 etc., and ἅπτεσθαι, Luke 5:13, Luke 22:51, Mark 1:41, Matthew 20:34 etc.). It is, of course, possible that ἐπιλαβόμενος (Luke 14:4) may have been used by the writer of the narrative to correspond with the word ἀνασπάσει (Luke 14:5), in order to emphasize the force of Jesus’ argument, and that Jesus, in actually laying hold of the dropsical patient, intended to convey objectively the lesson which each one of them ought to have learned from the toil involved in pulling a drowning animal out of a well.

The reference to the ‘well’ (εἰς φρέαρ, cf. εἰς βόθυνον, Matthew 12:11) is particularly appropriate when the nature of the discase is remembered, and shows how wonderfully every incident was used by Jesus to illustrate the lesson He meant to teach. A very similar instance is observed when He compared the woman with the diseased spine to the animal which, tied to his stall, required to be loosed therefrom even on the Sabbath day for his daily watering (Luke 13:15; ‘congrnenter hydropicum animali quod cecidit in puteum comparavit; humore enim laborabat,’ Augustine, Quaest. Evang. ii. 29).

Literature.—Plummer, ‘St. Luke’ in Internat. Crit. Com. in loc.; Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible iii. p. 328; Trench and Taylor on Miracles; Encyc. Brit. art. ‘Dropsy.’

J. R. Willis.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Dropsy'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. 1906-1918.

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