The link between the world’s first human heart transplant and an ancient Biblical prophecy

An analysis of the 1967 medical breakthrough in the light of Ezekiel 11:19

By Michael Lee, author of Heartbeat
September 2017

“All mankind stands at this moment at the graveside of Louis Washkansky –may his grave be for a blessing.”
Professor I. Abrahams, Chief Rabbi of the Cape, at the funeral of Louis Washkansky, Pinelands, 22 December 1967

It seems that the story of the first human heart transplant, which took place in the early hours of 3rd December 1967 at Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town, South Africa, may be about to yield yet another twist 50 years on.

The priest Ezekiel, one of three major Old Testament prophets (the other two being Isaiah and Jeremiah), recorded some 2,600 years ago what can only be described as a startling piece of foreknowledge, namely, that transplants of human organs would become part of medicine in the future:

I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh.[Ezekiel 11:19]

The context of this ancient scripture is the promised return of the people of Israel from their exile in Babylon which began in 597 B.C. The passage in which it occurs is highly literary and prophetical, with a positive tone established through a series of promises for the future. Although Ezekiel 11:19 anticipates a spiritual rebirth, it does draw an analogy between this process of inner renewal and an organ transplant. It paints a picture of the actual removal of a defective heart and its replacement with a living, or healthy, heart, which points to the medical purpose of a heart transplant.

The new translation of the Afrikaans Bible brings out the vividness of Ezekiel’s figure of speech:

Ek sal die kliphart uit hulle liggam verwyder en hulle ‘n hart van vleis gee.

Underlying such a comparison between a spiritual and physical transplant is the startling insight of an ancient prophecy that it will become possible in the future of medicine to remove inner organs from the body and replace them with ones which are in better condition.

Ezekiel, who was prophesying to his fellow exiled Jews (1), wanted, then, to illustrate the spiritual equivalent of what we call today a heart transplant. But medical knowledge itself only caught up with the underlying concept of Ezekiel 11:19 over two and a half thousand years later. That was when heart surgeon Professor Christian Barnard, his brother Marius and the whole heart team at Groote Schuur Hospital placed the heart of Denise Darvall, who had just been declared brain-dead after a motor vehicle accident, into the body of a dying man called Louis Washkansky on that fateful weekend early in December of ’67.

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