Abortion and Child Sacrifice in the Bible (From The Archives)

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.

  • Guest

    “our moral sensibilities are improving”

    Really?

  • Guest

    “our moral sensibilities are improving”

    Really?

  • http://profiles.google.com/cammoblammo Cameron Horsburgh

    Our moral sensibilities are changing. Whether or not they are improving is an exercise for the reader.

    Personally, I think they are improving, but I say that as a moral agent who has a different set of moral standards to previous generations. Of course I think the morals I hold now are better than the ones my grandparents held. If I didn’t, I’d change to them, wouldn’t I?

    In some respects our moral standards might be perceived to have slipped. For example, sexual ethics are far more lax today than they were in my grandparents day. Homosexuality is broadly acceptable. Promiscuity is okay, so long as you don’t claim to be in a monogamous relationship with someone else.

    In other things morals are improving. We are far less likely to drop incredibly racist comments into casual conversation. And we are far more likely to accept homosexuals into society.

    In other words, we have become far more utilitarian in our ethics. Behaviour that doesn’t hurt anyone else is more acceptable than it might have been once upon a time. What you do in your bedroom is your problem. However, actions that oppress or divide society are less likely to be accepted. 

    I think I like it this way.

  • cameronhorsburgh

    Our moral sensibilities are changing. Whether or not they are improving is an exercise for the reader.

    Personally, I think they are improving, but I say that as a moral agent who has a different set of moral standards to previous generations. Of course I think the morals I hold now are better than the ones my grandparents held. If I didn’t, I’d change to them, wouldn’t I?

    In some respects our moral standards might be perceived to have slipped. For example, sexual ethics are far more lax today than they were in my grandparents day. Homosexuality is broadly acceptable. Promiscuity is okay, so long as you don’t claim to be in a monogamous relationship with someone else.

    In other things morals are improving. We are far less likely to drop incredibly racist comments into casual conversation. And we are far more likely to accept homosexuals into society.

    In other words, we have become far more utilitarian in our ethics. Behaviour that doesn’t hurt anyone else is more acceptable than it might have been once upon a time. What you do in your bedroom is your problem. However, actions that oppress or divide society are less likely to be accepted. 

    I think I like it this way.

  • Gary

    Concerning Ezekiel and Jeremiah….I know you are tired of my references, but I can’t help it. Too obvious to pass up. North, south, Israel, Judah, Moses vs Aaron descendants, “Who Wrote the Bible”, Friedman, pg 158, “the prophet Ezekiel was an Aaronid priest, and he was among the Babylonian exiles. The Mushite priests, meanwhile, would have been more likely to be among the refugees in Egypt. For example, the prophet Jeremiah, who was apparently a Mushite priest, was among the Egypt refugees.” Pg 168-169, “For Jeremiah says: “For I did not speak with your fathers and I did not command them in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt about the matters of sacrifice”. Why is Jeremiah hostile to P?”…”the P record of the covenant between God and Israel gives a list of blessings and curses. It says that the blessings will come “If you walk according to my statutes and you keep my commandments and do them” (Lev 26:3). And the curses will come: “If you despise my statutes and distain my judgements so as not to do all my commandments” (Lev 26:15). Those are the words of the covenant. The words of the indictment in Ezekiel’s covenant lawsuit are: “You did not walk according to my statutes, and you did not do my judgements” (Ez 5:7). The P covenant curse says: “You will eat the flesh of your sons” (Lev 26:29). Ezekiel’s covenant lawsuit includes the judgement: “Fathers will eat sons in your midst” (Ez 5:10). So my simple summary, Ezekiel is tied to the Aaron priesthood, who is tied to (and probably wrote) Leviticus (P). If you don’t listen to Aaron’s descendants, God will trick you into doing terrible things. Jeremiah, on the other hand, doesn’t buy into P, and more than likely wrote D, and distains the practices of Aaron’s descendants, from the sacrificing to the golden calf in the desert, all the way up to the killing of the Shiloh priests by Saul, and the exile of the Shiloh priest Abinthar by Solomon (because they supported Adonijah as king instead of Solomon). Politics rule in the bible as much as they do today (more so, since the loser usually got killed). End of story. Conflicting statements in the bible are understandable.

  • Gary

    Concerning Ezekiel and Jeremiah….I know you are tired of my references, but I can’t help it. Too obvious to pass up. North, south, Israel, Judah, Moses vs Aaron descendants, “Who Wrote the Bible”, Friedman, pg 158, “the prophet Ezekiel was an Aaronid priest, and he was among the Babylonian exiles. The Mushite priests, meanwhile, would have been more likely to be among the refugees in Egypt. For example, the prophet Jeremiah, who was apparently a Mushite priest, was among the Egypt refugees.” Pg 168-169, “For Jeremiah says: “For I did not speak with your fathers and I did not command them in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt about the matters of sacrifice”. Why is Jeremiah hostile to P?”…”the P record of the covenant between God and Israel gives a list of blessings and curses. It says that the blessings will come “If you walk according to my statutes and you keep my commandments and do them” (Lev 26:3). And the curses will come: “If you despise my statutes and distain my judgements so as not to do all my commandments” (Lev 26:15). Those are the words of the covenant. The words of the indictment in Ezekiel’s covenant lawsuit are: “You did not walk according to my statutes, and you did not do my judgements” (Ez 5:7). The P covenant curse says: “You will eat the flesh of your sons” (Lev 26:29). Ezekiel’s covenant lawsuit includes the judgement: “Fathers will eat sons in your midst” (Ez 5:10). So my simple summary, Ezekiel is tied to the Aaron priesthood, who is tied to (and probably wrote) Leviticus (P). If you don’t listen to Aaron’s descendants, God will trick you into doing terrible things. Jeremiah, on the other hand, doesn’t buy into P, and more than likely wrote D, and distains the practices of Aaron’s descendants, from the sacrificing to the golden calf in the desert, all the way up to the killing of the Shiloh priests by Saul, and the exile of the Shiloh priest Abinthar by Solomon (because they supported Adonijah as king instead of Solomon). Politics rule in the bible as much as they do today (more so, since the loser usually got killed). End of story. Conflicting statements in the bible are understandable.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-Wilson/1355591760 Michael Wilson

    I’m not sure how reliable dust from the temple grounds would be as an abortive agent. Though that may have been the point, if she miscarried, she is a whore, if not, then you are the proud father, and it would be pure blind luck that determined it. 

    On child sacrifice being mandated, it would be expensive legislation, and likely to be ignored, which would do nothing for the people making the rules but lower their authority. While it is likely that it was a custom for Israel for a while, i would think it more likely a in case of emergency break glass rather than something you would do on a lark. I think it is the principle though that God deserves your first born that inspired the language in the animal sacrifice law, I don’t imagine that it was normal procedure.  

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-Wilson/1355591760 Michael Wilson

    I’m not sure how reliable dust from the temple grounds would be as an abortive agent. Though that may have been the point, if she miscarried, she is a whore, if not, then you are the proud father, and it would be pure blind luck that determined it. 

    On child sacrifice being mandated, it would be expensive legislation, and likely to be ignored, which would do nothing for the people making the rules but lower their authority. While it is likely that it was a custom for Israel for a while, i would think it more likely a in case of emergency break glass rather than something you would do on a lark. I think it is the principle though that God deserves your first born that inspired the language in the animal sacrifice law, I don’t imagine that it was normal procedure.  

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  • Lucian

    Pregnancy doesn’t “show” in the first trimester, when the baby is “unformed”. You can’t punish a man by death for an accident (he didn’t know the woman was pregnant: how could he?).

    The “first” and/or the “best” of every species was sacrificed unto God. By extension, the first-born child was dedicated unto God. (You must know from the Bible that the first-born had special rights and privileges, etc).

    Abraham’s pagan ancestors practiced human sacrifice, and the first lesson God taught him and his descendants was his rejection of such pagan practices, by the refusal of Isaac’s sacrifice. (The episode was primarily pedagogic, besides also being a test of faith, a Messianic prophecy, and a confirmation of the resurrection).

  • Lucian

    Pregnancy doesn’t “show” in the first trimester, when the baby is “unformed”. You can’t punish a man by death for an accident (he didn’t know the woman was pregnant: how could he?).

    The “first” and/or the “best” of every species was sacrificed unto God. By extension, the first-born child was dedicated unto God. (You must know from the Bible that the first-born had special rights and privileges, etc).

    Abraham’s pagan ancestors practiced human sacrifice, and the first lesson God taught him and his descendants was his rejection of such pagan practices, by the refusal of Isaac’s sacrifice. (The episode was primarily pedagogic, besides also being a test of faith, a Messianic prophecy, and a confirmation of the resurrection).

  • FLConnie

    Oh my goodness! More “progressive christianity” twisting of Scripture. What utter nonsense. A very young scholar of the Bible could write a better article than this. Abraham wasn’t performing child sacrifice; God never intended for him to go through with it. God was testing Abraham’s faith in Him, to make it stronger. God NEVER goes against His character, and He has always forbidden child sacrifice, as it was something done to appease false gods. This story in the Bible was a foreshadowing of the sacrifice that God would make for us all by giving His Son’s life to atone for our sins. So many “humanistic” and faulty assumptions here. Sad.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      Instead of popping in just to cast about insults, why not take the time to patiently and clearly explain your own viewpoint? For instance, how do you understand Ezekiel 20:25-26?


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