There is an interesting irony in the fact that a tradition that apparently once practiced child sacrifice has evolved into one in which (in certain segments, at least) is adamant in protecting the rights even of the not-yet-born. The teachings on the unborn found within the Bible are somewhat ambiguous. Exodus 21:22-25 appears to make a distinction between causing a miscarriage (treated as a misdemeanor and punished with a fine) and harm to the mother, although the term of ‘miscarriage’ could refer to a premature birth, in which case the language of “no further harm” would apply to both child and mother. The distinction is problematic, however, since a premature birth would almost always have died in antiquity. Leaving that passage to one side, Numbers 5:11-31 may offer the only reference to human-induced abortion in the Bible – and there it is mandated rather than prohibited.
It might be easy, on this basis, to simply argue that “Bible-believing Christians” should be pro-abortion. But I’d rather suggest that any ethical decisions we make should be based on our current understanding of the fetus’ development in the womb, rather than on texts from a pre-scientific age.
At any rate, it seems clear that evidence for development in Israel’s view of child sacrifice is to be found on the Bible’s pages. The earliest tradition may be reflected in Exodus 22:29-30, which seems (in spite of arguments to the contrary) to mandate offering one’s firstborn to God. Other laws allowed for a price for redemption to be paid instead, but that has all the hallmarks of a later legislation aimed at reforming this earlier one. It is interesting to compare Ezekiel 20:25-26 and Jeremiah 19:5 on whether God wanted this done, but Ezekiel seems to indicate that he understood it to have been God himself that tested Israel with “laws that were not good”. I wonder what an inerrantist would make of that.
It is as a response to this practice, as I’ve suggested before, that one ought to read the story of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac. If we go back far enough in any society, we will find practices and views that are abhorrent from the standpoint of our modern sensibilities. This is an encouraging experience – our moral sensibilities are improving, and in many societies that once explicitly endorsed the enslavement of people of a particular race, one nowadays will be challenged for even making a racist joke, never mind actually endorsing slavery. The Abraham story is to be appreciated as one of our only sources of evidence about the steps an ancient people took to change an abhorrent practice. It is for such accomplishments, and not for the common atrocities of ancient societies, that the Biblical literature ought to be appreciated.