If you’ve been a Christian for any length of time, you have likely run into various arguments people make that seek to draw out the inconsistency of the conservative position on things like traditional marriage, gender ideologies, and even abortion. For today’s post, I want to simply key in on one of the aforementioned issues: abortion.
The argument, as many non-Christians (and even some professing Christians) purport, is that God is largely indifferent to abortion at best, and actually supports it at worst. They lift a few key passages from the Old Testament in support of this interpretation, so my simple aim today is to handle those texts and show that how they handle these passages is intentionally sloppy. In short, it is but one of the many “gotchas” people seek to make that when one actually takes the time to look into their claims, turn out to not be a “gotcha” in any sense at all.
The first text people I want to treat briefly is Exodus 21:22-25, “If men struggle with each other and strike a woman with child so that she gives birth prematurely, yet there is no injury, he shall surely be fined as the woman’s husband may demand of him, and he shall pay as the judges decide. “But if there is any further injury, then you shall appoint as a penalty life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise” (NASB95).
In this particular passage, many lift it to show that the life of the mother is seemingly more valuable than the life of the pre-born infant. There are a few reasons for this, but most of them stem from the fact that various translations will handle this text differently. If, for example, you look at the NRSV, NLT, or the MSG, the translation committees (or in the case of the Message, Eugene Peterson) chose to render the statement “…yet there is no injury” as if it applies to the mother, rather than the infant. The rationale is that due to the text placing prominence on the life of the mother rather than the pre-born child, there is no intrinsic value assigned to the life of that child.
However, when you look at other translations such as the KJV, NASB, ESV, NIV, etc., the phrasing is more ambiguous. One can read it as if it applies to the mother, the child, or even both. This last option is how I understand the verse to be best translated and interpreted, and the reasons for this are outlined below.
It is impossible from the Hebrew to tell what the antecedent is for the one who has an injury requiring capital punishment (though it is important to note the term speaks of a “fatal” injury, not merely a severe one). It simply won’t be conclusive, from the Hebrew, if we try to apply it to the woman or the child. There may be deliberate ambiguity simply to allow for just punishment in the death of either the mother or the child. What’s interesting here though too is that the Hebrew term used for “life” is actually the one used to describe the “life-breath” or the “soul” of a person. The reason I say this is interesting is that if it is intentionally ambiguous, it is a very solid argument for the pre-born having intrinsic value as a soul, rather than at birth or whenever else someone might argue.
What is even more interesting is that the text doesn’t indicate the husband of the pregnant wife to be at fault here; it indicts the one whom he brawls with. What that indicates for us is relatively clear: it is a very specific instance where this case law becomes applicable. The fact that the terms of this are not broader seems to indicate a level of care around pregnant women that all should embrace, meaning that this situation is the extreme example setting the rule for all other examples. If this is the punishment even in the midst of a pregnant woman interfering in a violent encounter, which is arguably foolish, the blame falls on the opposing man’s shoulders, and not her own or her husband’s.
The implication then is that it is better to do whatever is in one’s power to avoid the fight, than to fight a pregnant woman’s husband, simply because of what might potentially happen as a result. The onus isn’t on the husband here either, which also makes an interesting point of highlighting that again, the value of the woman with child is intrinsically higher than that of an ordinary dispute. This is especially true when we consider that, “He who strikes a man so that he dies shall surely be put to death. But if he did not lie in wait for him, but God let him fall into his hand, then I will appoint you a place to which he may flee” (Ex. 21:12-13).
What this shows us is that the accidental death of another man in a fight is still not punishable by death, as they can flee to a sanctuary city. What this also shows us though is that the same is clearly not the case for a pregnant woman—and this is clear in our own modern case laws as well. We intrinsically recognize that a pregnant woman is not just one life, but two, and we punish murders, unintentional homicides, etc., with that intrinsic value assumed when the victim is a mother and/or her pre-born child.
The “fatal wound” of either the woman or the child in vv. 22-25 here, whether accidental or not, requires death. That much is painfully clear. The “non-fatal wound” which arguably, doesn’t even require a physical wound to be had, still requires penalty of a fine. Some might object to this as “ownership” of the spouse, but really, this is no different than how we handle disputes today when someone is ordered to pay restitution. Verses 24-25 further expounds on the injuries that might occur instead of a “fatal injury,” where the punishment must fit the crime. In any way you stretch it, the reality at hand is rather simple: the context here is deliberately ambiguous to support the notion that both the mother and her pre-born child are affirmed, in case law no less, requires Lex Talionis justice.
Many other Ancient Near Eastern societies also have similar laws, and some of them are even more explicit in determining capital punishment for both the woman and the infant. The Middle Assyrian Laws are one of the resources quoted at length for this, but it is similarly found (though more ambiguously) in Hammurabi’s Code (§209–214) and Hittite Laws (§17–18) as well. These laws don’t give the circumstances above, which as case law, could then be argued that it was the woman’s “own fault” for interfering in such a way that either her life or the pre-born child’s life came into danger. However, it does establish a clear precedent that other Semitic cultures even understood there was intrinsic value to the life of a pre-born child, and would take the life of one who caused the death of a pre-born child and/or their mother.
The other popular passage many seek to use to justify the practice of abortion is Numbers 5:11-31. I won’t quote this one at length, though I would encourage you to look this one up. In this instance, the “debunking” of this popular myth is quite a bit easier to draw out because this is a classic case of what is called eisegesis. Eisegesis, simply defined, is the practice of reading an interpretation into the text (i.e., imposing it upon the text) rather than Exegesis, which is drawing out what the text actually says (i.e., letting the text speak for itself).
The practice being outlined here is a means to determine whether a wife has been unfaithful by having an adulterous affair. If a husband suspects this to be the case, he is to take her to the priest where an offering is to be made, and the priest is to administer “bitter water” for her to drink. She is then to hold the grain offering from the husband, and swear an oath before the Lord, of her faithfulness before drinking of the “bitter water.” If she is innocent, the “bitter water” will not induce the curse. However, if she is found guilty before the Lord and she has committed adultery, she will suffer the effects of the curse, which involve the swelling of her abdomen and her thigh wasting away (5:21, 27).
Many take this “swelling of the abdomen” to be a miscarriage induced by the bitter water—or more clearly, they believe this to be a description of the practice of abortion. It is important to note: again, some of this might be due to translational issues with the NIV and NRSV, which are the only two I can find which make explicit reference to this being some sort of miscarriage.
However, again, when one looks to the Hebrew (and a Hebrew lexicon), there is no real indication that the word “swollen” should be translated as a miscarriage. More clearly, this seems to be an interpretational decision that the translation committee made based on the language of the surrounding verses. In the only three instances the two different words are used to describe this process (צבה of vv. 22 and 27, and צָבֶה of v. 21), all of them are present in this chapter of Numbers.
At first glance, this could seem to be a case of ambiguity on precisely what result is described for the woman cursed of God, however, when we look at v. 28, the context becomes clearer. “But if the woman has not defiled herself and is clean, she will then be free and conceive (lit. “sow”) children.” In other words, what this section of the text is describing is barrenness, which is the inability to conceive, not the termination of life within the womb. Barrenness is widely attested to in Scripture as something that is fully within God’s control (Gen. 25:21, 29:31; Jdg. 13:2). In the span of history, barrenness was seen as a curse, and this is something that our modern era has trouble understanding the full weight of simply because we don’t value children as an inheritance from God.
The only way one can arrive at that conclusion that Numbers 5 is speaking of a miscarriage though is to insert that meaning into the text. Unfortunately, it seems at least the NIV and NRSV are guilty of, which has led to no shortage of misusing and abusing this text. However, it should be noted that even if these two translations are correct, in spite of the evidences they are not, a miscarriage or stillbirth is still not the same practice as an abortion. It is also important to state that it is not the bitter water which induces the curse spoken of here, but the woman’s sin of adultery, which is quite clear from the context. The “bitter water” is the means, or vehicle, through which the curse of God is carried out, but the context remains quite clear in showing that one who has not committed adultery will not suffer the consequences to her sin.
Many will still object to this, placing the onus of the curse on God Himself, which is actually correct. God is the Giver and Taker of life. He has intrinsic right over His creation to do as He pleases, and while many may not like that, it does nothing to change that reality. In this case, indeed, He is the One who brings the curse upon the unfaithful adulteress as a form of judgment against her. Yet the overwhelming evidence at hand betrays the common tropes that God approves of abortion in the Old Testament. Even these passages that many seek to lift and exalt as examples of this fall flat when one takes just a little more time to dig more deeply into what they actually say.
Overwhelmingly, the Scriptures support not only the sanctity and dignity of life, but condemn hands that shed innocent blood. What many seek to make dubious, therefore, is nothing more than an attempt to wriggle out from underneath the multitude of very clear passages that condemn the practice of killing infants. So, my point in the end is simple. Do your due diligence and actually take a look at the text. It may take some work—even some you sense is well outside your ability, but we have so many useful resources available to us today that we can assess the merits of any argument. In the end, we must ask the question: what does the biblical text actually say, as opposed to what some want to make it say?